As if to demonstrate the centre cannot hold, debates around canonical art have shaken down to the East Midlands from a point of origin in New York’s Bronx. Nottingham Contemporary hosts a curatorial project by US artist Glenn Ligon. Thanks to a creative hang, the regional gallery has set up dialogues between some of the masters of international art along with a range of forgotten voices.
Ligon agrees to meet me in the gallery café. He is a patient interviewee who sees the funny side of every other line he utters. He uses the verbal tic ‘you know’ with greater frequency than anyone I have ever met.
And with a chunky metal ring and equally bold cardigan buttons, he cuts a dandyish figure who might have got lost on his way to the capital. All the same, he soon tells me he is pleased to be here.
“I think Nottingham’s an interesting city,” says the artist. “It has this strong regional museum with adventurous programming. It’s not dumbed down programming for some imagined audience that needs to see certain things. So that was the draw.” Ligon also appreciates the local quota of 60,000 students and was pleased to see a youthful crowd at the opening of his show on April 3rd.
That exhibition continues to prove popular, thanks to a mix of big names from the world of abstract expressionism, a strong showing by African American artists, and edgy works that explore sexuality and gender along with race.
Sometimes, as in the nude wrestling on show in Steve McQueen’s film Bear, these works look at all three themes. Of his first encounter with Bear (1993), Ligon says: “I thought it was the most amazing thing ever. I thought it was incredible.”
His comment is a reminder that Encounters and Collisions is a show about the artist’s influences. Yet it is also a show about the universal appeal of art. With some of his choices, such as Kline, Pollock or Beuys and Boetti, Ligon couldn’t have gone far wrong.
But the dead white males have been dusted down and put into a vital dialogue with, say, the macabre animations of Kara Walker, or the knowing voyeurism of a group of Zoe Leonard photos.
Asked if he sees his many influences as reference points or rivals, the artist responds with one of his amused observations: “I think there’s a bit of both. I think you always want to kill the fathers, or the mothers, so there’s part of that.
“But for me it’s looking at an inquiry that was made by a certain artist and seeing where one can go with that, you know, seeing how it intersects with the things one is interested in”.
The show will travel to Tate Liverpool and an association with the UK’s biggest art museum franchise has proved handy for securing loans. But a show of this sort remains a feat of organisation.
“I’m not a curator, so a lot of heavy lifting around these things, I didn’t have to do,” says Ligon. Nevertheless, the exhibition grew out of a list of names which he supplied. The artist was also able to contact several of his peers directly and several of his letters appear in the gallery handout.
It is no surprise to find that Ligon has a way with words, although he doesn’t always choose his own. His most famous works are his text paintings, which employ quotations from literature and stand-up comedy.
The starting point for this show was a collection of his essays and interviews called Yourself in the World. And his facility for language has even survived a stint spent as a legal proof reader. “If that didn’t kill off an interest in language nothing would,” he jokes.
One of his own works in the show, of which there are several, contains a quote from writer and activist James Baldwin. But the text is buried in a monolithic black painted work with coal dust.
Abstract expressionism meets conceptualism, in a space shared with a portrait of Baldwin in oils, by the writer’s friend Beauford Delaney, plus a piece of black and white abstraction by Franz Kline. The show veers between abstraction and figuration throughout and, as Ligon says of this grouping: “I kind of forced those things together”.
An artist like Delaney can now be more visible than at any time since the 1950s: “I think the interesting thing that has happened now is a lot more work is available to be seen, because of the internet, because museums have realised that artists they’ve overlooked are important and those works come out of the storeroom.”
Ligon cites the reappearance of African American painter Benny Andrews at MoMA as an example. “It takes a younger generation of curators to come in and kind of revise the canon.”
But, as the artist points out, this needs to filter through. He tells me only three African Americans have had solo shows at the New York gallery, and only “a dozen, maybe two dozen” women.
Ligon claims the artworld only “feels” like an inclusive place, “because artists are so bizarre and come from such strange places, but it’s still part of our society and employs the same kind of mechanisms that keep people out of spaces in larger society separate to the art world”.
But when asked about the contemporary art landscape today, the New Yorker sees a resurgence of interest in these older forms.
“I think there has been a kind of a real interest in, particularly, abstract expressionism. But filtered through technology, filtered through the social ,” he says, before adding: “We have enough distance, I think, from that era to find abstraction vital again, but also do it in a different way, bring different things into it”.
Although Ligon remains a fan of ‘Ab Ex’, he has reservations about the monolithic status of the form and its practitioners.
“I love the Met in New York, but for years and years and years – probably decades – their selection of modern art never changed. The Pollock was always next to the de Kooning, which was round the corner from the Rothko.” As a Met fan, he still considers this a problem: “You never hear about the dialogues these artists were having with artists who were not the masters, or considered to be the masters”.
So it’s no surprise that the show in Nottingham is a playful, fresh arena and also a crowded one. Ligon jokes about this: “My ideal show would be one where all the pieces are touching, because that’s how they feel in my head. There are impossible combinations of things.”
He adds a rhetorical “You know?” to this observation. Visit this somewhat irreverent show and you can only agree.
Glenn Ligon: Encounters and Collisions can be seen at Nottingham Contemporary until 14 June 2015, then at Tate Liverpool between 20 June and 18 October 2015. Interview written for Culture24.
In the servant quarters of a Regency Townhouse in Brighton, you can now see a film about one of the harshest jobs on the South Coast. Namely, dredging and processing aggregate for cement.
And as if to stop the metropolitan art crowd from getting too cosy, civil engineer turned artist Loomes has projected her film onto a 16 x 9 wall of cubed concrete bricks.
This arrangement represents the aspect ratio (16:9) for most televisions and laptop screens. It’s a bit ironic that, because aggregate must be one of the least visible industries around.
Indeed, the raw material has lain hidden on the sea floor for some 150 million years. The fine sand and small stone, for which the building industry hungers, comes from Ice Age river beds.
This is the relict of the work’s title. Like the words relic and derelict, the term for raw aggregate comes from a Latin root. Relinquere means, of course, to leave behind.
But in the 15th century a relict was a widow. One might suppose that if you marry a shiftworker who works eight hours on/eight hours off for up to a fortnight at a time, you might feel that way.
So whether working on a hoover ship just outside the harbour or at the noisy plant which can process 600 tonnes of relict material per hour, you have what one worker calls a “good secure job”.
Loomes captures the voices of the men who work here and the moments of mechanical violence and occasional peace which fill each working day. There’s almost a romance about this industry.
Relict Material is a co-commission by Photoworks and HOUSE Festival and can be seen at The Regency Townhouse, Brighton, until May 24 2015.
What a difference a new occasion makes. The last installation of You Imagine What You Desire was over 17,000 km away at a Biennial in Sydney. Now it appears in a festival in Brighton.
But geography is the least of it. In Sydney it was on a gallery facade; in Brighton it is in an ancient church. It’s from the streets of a big, young city to a reflective space in a small, old world one.
So what gets imagined in a church and what gets desired? Well, heaven obviously, but also hell. It is the go-to place for imagining the outcomes of our actions, for guidance in the way we live our lives.
You might ask why anyone would desire a burning pit. But perhaps we like to be kept in line, on some level. And a sense of justice is useful to both society and the individual. So why not.
The builder’s scaffold which holds these letters is blunt about this. It too is utilitarian. And here it tells us that imagination and desire are the pole and grip structure of our morality.
But a scaffold is temporary and the fairground lights remind us there are plenty more things and people to desire in this seaside town of ours. Out there, on the pier, desire is still a thrill ride.
There are lots of risks, but few spiritual consequences on the pier. It is a very modern institution in that way. So Coley brings the amusement park into the last place you might expect to find it.
After all, Saint Nicholas’ is the oldest church in town. The pier may be one of our best known landmarks but, until now, the twain have never met. They have to turn off the lights during worship.
So, apologies to Sydney, and all future venues. But this really belongs in Brighton, and you can’t say that about too much art. More is to be desired, even if it be hard to imagine.
You Imagine What You Desire is a HOUSE/Brighton Festival co-production and can be seen at Saint Nicholas’s, Brighton, until May 24 2015.
Read my review of Nathan Coley at Brighton Festival on The Arts Desk.
Next year it will be 25 years since American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis; in that time various crimes have been exposed in the banking industry. So it seemed timely to reread.
But it’s not just about greed and Wall Street. It’s about fashion, food, designer goods and popular music. It’s hardly about art at all, but what little there is will amuse you. It’s a blackly funny yarn.
Patrick Bateman has a dubious gift for recognising labels and brands. The running joke of this 400 page book is that every last outfit is broken down, itemised and noted.
So here, art is just another commodity. In a friend’s house, he spots “spooky” photos by Cindy Sherman and a painting by Eric Fischl, which he doesn’t even bother describing. (pp.279-80)
And while running from police he recognises a Julian Schnabel painting in a lobby. (You were just waiting for one to appear). It’s how he realises he’s in the “wrong fucking building”. (p. 351)
But the artist who most speaks to or for Bateman is David Onica. He owns a painting which sounds to be the original version of Sunrise with Broken Plates. He discreetly boasts about its cost.
The painting is mentioned a number of times. A crack appears in the ceiling overhead. And before she meets her fate, a murder victim points out the work is hung upside down. A loopy sign.
After dispatching this girlfriend, Bateman sells one Onica painting and buys another. This time it is “a huge portrait of a graphic equaliser done in chrome and pastels”. A portrait of a thing? Right.
As if in response to its literary fame, the artist remade his Sunrise painting in 2004 and now sells a range of merchandise from mugs to iPhone cases. One wonders what became of the original.
It is chastening that the most evil and soulless of characters also owns a Frank Stella print and, in his office at Pierce & Pierce, a painting by George Stubbs, the location of which he muses about.
Just where does one place a sign of ‘old money’, amidst state of the art stereo equipment and a 1980s twilight blue colour scheme? It is just this conflict which has spawned a Bateman.
By the time the murder count is in double figures, the killer finds himself out with, among others, a one John Constable (p. 347). So much for pastoral romance. This book kills it stone dead.
Page numbers refer to Picador edition of American Pscyho (c) 1991. David Onica merchandise can be found here.
While some consider we are now post-postmodern, it cannot be denied that we still live with many features of the condition identified by Jean-François Lyotard. My theory might be rusty, but it seems the internet has only heightened matters, and the age of simulacra is still very much with us. There’s no getting away from it, but if you still want to get beyond hyperrealities, you might well find yourself drawn to the art of the past. And if you develop a taste for this you might want to get right back to paleolithic art. What could be more authentic than the cave painting of a cave man?
But rather than get back to life as it was perceived in the Pyrenees, say, 40,000 years ago, this piece will argue that we are locked out from raw and therefore real contact with cave art; though perhaps we always were. And we’ll see that, taking Altamira in Spain as our example, simulacra and fakery are of a holistic piece with the history of the caves both recent and in the deep past. There was nothing authentic about the world’s first recorded artists and this structure has found echoes in the reception of their work today.
In his fascinating book, The Mind in the Cave, David Lewis-Williams lays out a number of theories about prehistoric art. And what comes across strongly is that whatever thoughts went through the modern brains of the artists, the original audiences at Lascaux, Chauvet, and indeed Altamira, must have experienced cave art in a way so different from gallery art today, we might not recognise it. Cave walls represented a gesamtskunstwerk and the pictures themselves were to be seen with flickering torchlight and possibly with music and dance. Art was a bona fide trip, but as we know from our own religion (modern science) altered states no longer offer privileged access to information about the world.
So cave art and make believe evolved hand in hand. During the tens of millennia of its first hand reception it required a suspension of disbelief from both the artist and the rest of his or her clan. Now, it could be argued, there’s no faith without doubt, a fact just as true for even the most fundamental of our 21st century believers. Perhaps it is even doubt which provokes fundamentalism, but that is a digression. Lewis-Williams makes clear that the art of the caves of Western Europe was the result of vision questing. In short it was, via drugs, sensory deprivation or lack of oxygen, the result of self-induced hallucination. The shamen knew what they were doing and their status depended on it.
Quite why and how cave art came to be characterised, across Europe, by many hundreds of recurring motifs, by the same species, by entopic marks, by hand prints, is a discussion for another time. It’s not a question that even Lewis-Williams clears up to the reader’s satsifaction. And the most likely theory, hunting magic, cannot account for the lack of Reindeer on the walls, especially at Lascaux where that prey’s bones are to be found in plentiful numbers. The most intriguing idea, to me, is that different species represent different clans and as a result cave art is not a confused rush of bovine and equine imagery but an epic art form, a history painting.
But surely that’s just another expression of the longing for an authentic, and in this case materialistic explanation. There never was, and never will be, an art of pure and partisan representation. That’s for the realm of propaganda and no one who has been touched by cave art could possibly allow for the possibility that the caves were some form of lecture. Just ask the archaeologist who spent some 20 minutes in tears when he first saw Lascaux. And just consider Picasso, who said of that cave: “We have learned nothing in 12,000 years”.
We have, however, learned plenty. We have learned how to tease the cave experience out of the ground and into a wealth of picture books, cinema, postcards and posters. We have dematerialised the cave and allowed it to float through our daily lives in the form of jpeg galleries, mobile news stories and tourism sites. We have learned how to market the cave experience to a 21st century audience and how to generate revenue undreamt of by the men or women whose handiwork we have come to celebrate in this way.
The caves have become portable, which is somewhat counter-intuitive when you consider them as the ultimate parietal art form. (It makes as little sense as that piece of street art soaked off the side of a pub wall and sold to a millionaire.) In Altamira, for example, you can even buy a chunk of the cave to take home and fix on your living room wall. Okay, it’s not actual rock taken from the original site. It is instead ceramic. And one of the bison has been scaled down and reproduced on a souvenir retailing for close to €100; somebody should notify the artist’s estate.
A wall mounting like this has various advantages over a poster. Not only does it carry more literal and hence metaphorical weight, it is also in low relief which, as you may well know, is a key factor in the art of paleolithic man. Cave walls were not a blank canvas. Instead, they gave the artist a topology of dips and bumps, and the creative interpretation of these was the very beginnings of representation. The ceramic bison demonstrates how a ridge of rock can suggest the backbone of a 1000kg bison.
We can verify this with a trip to Altamira itself. The lasting impression of this author was of an array of these bulls suspended low overhead and undulating like orange clouds. But there was nothing in the least bit authentic about this close contact with artistic origins. Two years ago, at the time I visited, the original cave at Altamira was closed. Tourists like myself were shepherded instead through Cueva II, a large partial replica to what we might otherwise have found underground.
There are pros and cons for building replica caves, as indeed they have also done at Lascaux and Chauvet. Their chief function is to preserve the invaluable art found in the darkened chambers of a genuine cave. One supposes that replica caves are also more accessible, better lit, easier to provide interpretation. The cons are pretty self-evident too. You won’t get much atmosphere from a fibreglass ceiling. You won’t get the play of light and shade or the echo of subterranean water dripping, as Lewis Wiliams points out. And you won’t get that clammy cold feeling which can surely facilitate goosebumps and hair standing on the nape of your neck.
So overall, replica caves are a necessary evil. But they structure the experience of primal art as a theme park visit rather than the real thing. If they do their job properly they are quintessential fakes. And the €100 tile which you pick up in the gift shop is therefore a fake of a fake. Hence we are totally cut adrift from just that strain of art which might have brought us closest to the essential role of art on this planet. The gift shop at Altamira says as much in its way as all the scholarly literature combined. It is the noisy rebuke to first hand research and understanding.
But these layers of fakery go back in time themselves. At the time of its discovery, 1879, the whole of Altamira was considered a forgery. It was only the word of amateur archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, against those of two French experts, Gabriel de Mortillet and Emile Cartailhac. The experts alleged that a contemporary artist was responsible. It seems that even face to face with the authentic and the real, we cannot always see it for what it is.
So we vacillate between the moving, direct experience of those with access to the real caves and the gawping enjoyment of a tour round one of their replicas. We are moved because we expect to be and we love the replicas* because we love all make believe. In that sense we are not a million miles from the twin mindsets of the shamen and his public. And despite the lack of drumming and smoking lamps, this two speed model of reception might even hold true for the art with which we surround ourselves today. The simulacra and the simulacra makers have been around forever and show no sign of going away.
*Unless we are Jonathan Jones, who by a wild coincidence has written about cave art today as well.
A slogan is etched into a block of stone and the stone laid on a piece of red felt. There is something somewhat reverent about this inscription; the words carry weight and are to be handled with care.
You read the title off the block. And then you read it in a different way off the plaque on the wall. Just as you would read it in a different way again, if sprayed on brickwork. It’s unstable stone.
We all have our own reading. It’s the word nature which divides the audience. Is it human nature, as the Latinate letters imply? Or is it nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ as suggested by the crimson felt?
Perhaps it is even ‘second’ nature. It is as if, after the revolution, it will become habitual to think in political terms. It is as if it would take a revolution, not an election, to wake us all up in that way.
Finlay was a poet before he was an artist. Hence the gift for ambiguity. But the plastic elements in this work only add to the secrecy of his meaning. The poet is washing his hands of your response.
But the classical lettering must tell us something. At the very least it tells us that Finlay intends for his words to be around for millennia. To a blogger such as myself, that’s frankly scary.
The five terse words have been cut by his frequent collaborator Nicholas Sloan. A classical typeface suggests classical values. Social revolution was surely never among the values of Rome.
But the line is broken in three places. The tablet can barely contain the message. And so the artist’s sentiment, be it warning or promise, threatens to break free. As do we all from time to time.
Felt is a curious choice of material, more associated with the Asiatic barbarians at the gate. Or with Jospeh Beuys, another sloganeer. Beuys made a great deal of the healing properties of felt.
So as to revolution? You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, or even stones. But perhaps you can mop up the blood. And to say as much is as natural as it is political.
This piece can be seen at Manchester Art Gallery.
To be fair, all years have some groundbreaking music to recommend them. But 1975 was a good year for both jazz and urban planning in Germany. Who knew the two could go together?
In Köln, Keith Jarrett played an improvised concert, the recording of which was to become the best-selling solo piano album of all time. Note the quibbling over genre, which can be found elsewhere.
Meanwhile to the North West of the city, a communal reform pronounced 12 nearby villages to have become a single municipal entity. Pulheim was born and in 1981 became a city.
Now, thanks to a new 23 minute film by Swedish artist Billing, improvisation and infrastructure have been married up again: a pianist plays in a barn, while 50 cars stage a tailback on a one-lane road.
Applying herself to the baby grand is artist and musician Edda Magnason. She offers a soundtrack to the traffic situation which begins with some tentative vamping and builds to an insistent riff.
The camera loves her instrument, the workings of which are juxtaposed with the engines of the cars, as, when the queue gets moving again, one driver helps another with a jump start.
But this is one jam you might not want to end, even if it takes place in a landscape as monotonous as it is continental, with fields of sleeping corn and power lines hung like staves from pylons.
It is only once the cars grind to a halt that their occupants come to life. Passengers play with dice. A father reads to his children. Dogs are let out to chase sticks. It’s all action in a major key.
Back in the barn, we encounter film crew, lighting rig and the impossible sight of men loading the Bechstein onto a removal truck belonging to ‘Piano Express’. Easy on the ears, the music plays on.
Plenty more sounds find their way in; the road users provide ambient noise. And Magnason takes regular breaks, allowing you to think about what you see just as much as what you hear.
But ultimately, if you give it time, this film will sweep you away. It is at once totally mundane and yet life-affirming. Billing finds music in every visual detail, from smokestacks to litter in the kerb.
4000 years after their first use in Egypt, Wael Shawky has made marionettes a central part of his art practice, spooking the viewer with what some say is the oldest form of theatre.
These puppets are not found objects. The artist has them made using glass and ceramic to render a cast of plenty, in period dress, who range from ethnic caricature to alien xenomorph.
As destructible as a truce, these include more than 100 hand-blown glass marionettes made by the maestros in Venice, a city with its own minor role in the crusades.
Shawky’s theme here is the millennium-old strife between Christianity and Islam or, more accurately, between Islam and Christianity. After all, those of Islamic faith were on home turf.
But the drama is inspired by Arab accounts of the 11th and 12th centuries, when invading knights from Northern Europe waged a war – of varying degrees of holiness – in the Levant.
Take for instance this account by Ralph of Caen: “In Ma’arra [today in Syria], our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled.”
Whether or not this grim moment appears in Cabaret Crusades, I can’t say. The new show in Doha is beyond my usual patch. But even on film, you sense these puppets are capable of anything.
And this. As the 9th century rolled around, Baghdad was the most powerful and civilised place on earth with 1,000 physicians, free healthcare, regular post, working sewers and good water supply.
The early Iraqis even had global banking, with several overseas bank branches in China. That’s kind of mindblowing, whereas what the invaders had was apparently chainmail and brutality.
Such factoids are on almost every page of the book mentioned by Shawky in generous interviews: The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf. It’s highly recommended.
Art also figures in this reprehensible past. Upon witnessing the siege of Acre in 1189, historian Ibn al-Athir reports the use of a painting of Muhammad beating Jesus: “to incite people to vengeance”.
Cabaret Crusades is unlikely to inspire fanaticism on either side. But what the puppets may well tell you clearly that history is full of treachery, intrigue and reversals of fate.
So if in recent years you’ve been surprised or indeed exasperated by inconsistencies in US and UK foreign policy, look upon these fragile, mutually dependent figures and realise it was every thus.
Wael Shawky: Cabaret Crusades and Other Stories can be seen at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, until 16 August.
This interview with Shawky and clips of the action is well worth a look.
I’ve been picking a monthly round up of art for a few years now, first on Culture24 and now on criticismism. If it’s not my imagination, this is getting more difficult. Cuts coming home to roost?
It’s my unscientific impression galleries have got less likely to list forthcoming shows. It could be a sign they’re having trouble planning, or that they’re at least lacking web resource.
That’s to say nothing of the quality of what’s on offer. But fortunately, it remains a tricky operation to choose a shortlist from the wealth of UK exhibitions. Anyhow, FWIW, as ever, here goes:
Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age, FACT, Liverpool, 5 Mar – 17 May. New group show connects the technology which structures our lives with the mental illness which sometimes blights them. 15 artists provide a chance to reflect on the new psychological landscape.
Leonora Carrington, Tate Liverpool, 6 Mar – 31 May. Too much to say about Carrington in this narrow window, but unfamiliar visitors may thrill to her surreal work, her remarkable life story, and her diversification into poetry, scultpure, tapestry and theatre design.
Gerald Scarfe: Milk Snatcher, The Thatcher Drawings, The Bowes Museum, Co. Durham, 14 Mar – 31 May. With a general election on May 7, this is a brave moment for a museum to remind us of the evils of Thatcherism. And, with recent events in Paris, the power of political cartoons.
Richard Diebenkorn, The Royal Academy, London, 14 Mar – 7 Jun 2015. Heralded by US papers as a painter of superlative gifts, the forthcoming show – Dieberkorn’s first in the UK for 20 years – is an opportunity to be seized. The RA promises a career long survey.
Matt Stokes: Cantata Profana, Dilston Grove, Southwark Park, London 27 Mar – 26 Apr. Grindcore metal meets choral composition in an offsite six-channel installation for Matt’s Gallery. Find yourself immersed as the volume goes up to (a no doubt cathartic) eleven.