All posts by Mark Sheerin

Remedios Varo, The Creation of The Birds (1957)

Remedios Varo, Creation of the Birds (Creacion de las aves) (1957). Oil on masonite. © Remedios Varo, DACS/VEGAP, (ex: Chichester, Norwich) (2010)

It must be tempting for an artist to think the painted, drawn or sculpted subject has a life beyond the canvas, page or block. This was maybe the original impulse of art – with cave paintings as an invocation for the success of the tribal hunt.

Most paintings of beauty could be viewed the same way, as attempts to make desires real. Once we strove to possess mammoths; later we strove to possess landscapes and nudes. The artwork could be a talisman for calling ideal situations into being.

At a stretch this can also explain why artists have painted hell, or suffering, or war. Desire may be the only motive power of the mind, in which case we have more sadistic or masochistic desires than we generally know.

An artist can even yearn for a god. In The Creation of The Birds (1957) Remedios Varo summons one up from her own imagination or perhaps some esoteric text.

This painting is not all that different from a classical sculpture of a god of antiquity or a later western representation of the Christian God, or his son, or any other of the saints, etc.

Varo invokes her goddess through paint. Fine brushstrokes focus the mind. Inventive details (prism, violin string, and paint machine) make the desired being plausible. It is a prayer, or perhaps a spell, or is there any difference in terms of art?

The Creation of the Birds is on display in the show Surreal Friends, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 12 September.

7 days of silence: my week inspired by John Cage

Take one iPod and Spotify addict, give him the text of a lecture by John Cage, take away his music for a week, and see what happens. It was a recent, quite unscientific experiment and the guinea pig was me.

The first few days were harsh. Putting on the stereo was one of those things that helped get me out of bed in the morning. I resorted to singing in the shower, whistling on the way to the office. Back home at night, the silence stretched out like dead time. Life seemed a blank. TV was no substitute.

By day five I had begun dreaming about music and in my dream I was making preparations to listen to Wouldn’t It Be Nice by The Beach Boys. ‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘it will be very nice,’ but my fix of melody never came to pass. I woke up, to more, depressing silence.

That weekend there was a party and I was expecting wine, women and song: in reverse order. But the longed for music was a disappointment. Watching guests dance, I missed the sound of washing machines, traffic or dogs barking. Okay, that may have been the drink thinking.

But the next day I got a bus and sat at the back, over the engine, and for the first time really got into some background noise. Each burst of acceleration seemed like a dense, reverb-filled chord. I think it helped that engine noise is loud, more attuned to my rock sensibilties.

The real acid test was switching on the football last night to watch a World Cup game. It was Spain versus Honduras and the two goals were not bad, but you know what? The much maligned drone of the African vuvuzelas does sound, in fact, fantastic. Then again, so do the Beach Boys.

An exhibition of paintings by John Cage, Every Day is a Good Day, is on show at BALTIC, Gateshead until 5 September 2010.

Francis Alÿs/James White/Clare Twomey/Surreal Friends

Here’s a round up of the pieces I wrote for Culture24 last week. Enjoy!

James White, Burgerbox (2010)

James White, Burgerbox, 2010. Oil and varnish on birch-ply in Perspex box frame. Image courtesy Max Wigram Gallery.

Like many a great still life, this one by James White is a dazzling piece of representation. But the scene represented is at one remove, painted from a photograph. His use of black and white draws attention this fact, as skilful as the reproduction may be.

The result is a literal sort of photo-realism. It shows things just as they stand in the artist’s studio, yet gives emphasis to how they have been framed by a camera lens. This seems ad hoc. Perhaps it is, although the smoothly applied oil paint and varnish brings gravity to the incidental scene.

White’s depiction of a burgerbox and half bottle of water belongs to a genre which historically likes to celebrate food. But instead of a carefully composed picture of domestic abundance, we are given here takeaway packaging, bottled water and a bag of sugar.

In a way he is expanding the thematic range of painting, getting real about his subject matter along with its mere appearance. But the gesture is also ironic. Considerable time and effort has gone into the rendering of some everyday detritus and the work is displayed in a perspex box which elevates the content even further.

Perhaps that is what painting has always been about, aggrandisement in one way or another. This it can still do better than a camera, and look, it can even immortalise a snapshot if that is what you want it to do.

James White – New Paintings is at Max Wigram Gallery, London, until 17 July 2010.

Francis Alÿs: Paradox of Praxis I (Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing)

The art of Francis Alÿs is a reflection of political realities. In this film he pushes a block of ice around the streets of Mexico City for six or seven hours until it melts. On the same streets, thousands of locals spend their days pushing, carrying or towing wares or chattels. The results are the same: nothing to show for all the hard work.

But Alÿs does have something to show for it, a five minute film. And in a work called Ambulantes I and II, he also gives the street traders and removal men their due. Physical labour has given rise to art, if not profit, but what good is that to people who earn a living by the sweat of their brow?

The piece is called Paradox of Praxis I (Sometimes Doing Something Leads To Nothing), as if Alÿs were making a point about the futility of art. And yet this is not merely art about art. The routines of manual workers are just as much of a praxis and must at most times feel just as paradoxical.

Compared with such hardship the artwork melts away; the city absorbs it and the viewer, whoever they may be, can see those hot, dusty streets as if for the first time. And that is something.

Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception is at Tate Modern until 5 September.

Preview: Cage Mix – Sound and Sculpture at BALTIC

Exhibition: Cage Mix – Sound and Sculpture, BALTIC, Gateshead, until September 19 2010

If ever a course sounded challenging, it was this one: Experimental Composition at the New School for Social Research; tutor: John Cage.

Cage taught the classes towards the end of the 1950s and his students were by and not musicians, but artists. So few memorable tunes resulted.

Nevertheless it was here that the 60s craze for ‘happenings’ was born and also where the Fluxus movement got going. And 60 years on artists are still drawing inspiration from the avant garde composer’s life and work.

Indeed, the current show at BALTIC features a response from eight contemporary artists to a piece of work developed while Cage was at the New School, Fontana Mix.

This piece was scored on transparent sheets which, when overlapped, would result in random compositions and new pieces of work.

These must have inspired the 165 sheets of paper which make up Paper Moon by Paul Ramirez Jonas. Repeating the phrase “I create as I speak” he builds a map of our lunar satellite which viewers are invited to read aloud or to themselves from a loose sheet presented with a microphone.

Fontana Mix also finds an echo in the composition of loose musical instrument parts arranged on the gallery’s slate floor. But Katja Strunz’s astral-type arrangement reflects that ultimate chance event, the big bang.

Meanwhile local artist Richard Rigg suspends a brass bell in a vacuum sealed bell jar which when rung can be seen and not heard. Surely, an echo of Cage’s famous 4’33” piece.

Clearly, Cage’s impact on art has been massive. Has there ever been an artist who has done as much for music?

Written for Culture24.

A guide to art venues in South East England

With more than 300 museums in the South East, it is little surprise to find nearly a dozen major destinations for modern and contemporary art.

This guide, written for Culture24, takes you around the region from Bucks to Kent, where three exciting projects are due to come on line in the next couple of years. If you love visual art, it is the county to watch.

Milton Keynes Gallery

With an address like no other, the gallery at 900 Midsummer Boulevard brings 300m2 of exhibition space to this new town’s cultural quarter.

Milton Keynes Gallery opened in 1999 with a Gilbert and George show, drawing 23,000 visitors, and has since gone from strength to strength.

Leading international artists have continued to show their work in the building’s three galleries, with occasional with eye-catching wraps of the cube-like exterior.

Modern Art Oxford

While not as ancient as some institutions in the university city, Modern Art Oxford has been on the block longer than most other spaces for contemporary art.

Since 1965 it has built a national and international reputation for groundbreaking shows, from the likes of Joseph Beuys, Donald Judd and Marina Abramovich.

Meanwhile past directors include Sir Nicholas Serota, now in charge of the Tate. This fact might be one to throw into the conversation as you take tea in the vibrant yard.

Stanley Spencer Museum, Cookham, Berkshire

English painter Stanley Spencer had only been dead for three years when villagers in his native Cookham managed to open a memorial gallery in 1962.

It was Spencer who put the Berkshire village on the map when he painted the local dead returning to life in his sensational work of 1927, The Resurrection Cookham.

So the collection of more than 100 paintings and drawings has found a suitable home in a former Methodist chapel. It is staffed entirely by (living) volunteers.

ArtSway, New Forest, Hampshire

Visitors to the last three Venice Biennales may have been surprised to find a pavilion dedicateed to the New Forest in Hampshire.

But the National Park is firmly on the contemporary art map thanks to a purpose built gallery with links to the University of Bournemouth.

ArtSway holds eight or nine shows a year from the likes of Jordan Baseman and Gayle Chong Kwan. It also houses five studios and runs residencies.

Aspex, Portsmouth

Portsmouth’s leading contemporary art space would grace a city twice the size. Aspex has shown work by more than 1,000 emerging artists since 1981.

Local and international names also figure in the roster with five shows in the main gallery each year and a second fast-moving project space.

In 2006 Aspex moved to the Vulcan Building in Gunwharf Keys. The one-time naval storehouse is now an inspiring, if incongruous, setting for art.

John Hansard Gallery, Southampton

In 1980 the University of Southampton brought together a photographic gallery and a fine art gallery into one space in a former laboratory at its Highfield Campus.

A model for measuring tides in the nearby Solent.was ripped out and a programme designed to encourage academic and public debate was installed in its place. Publishing is also on the agenda at this Hampshire gallery.

Pallant House, Chichester

The decision to add a contemporary wing to a Grade I Queen Anne Town House was a controversial triumph in 2006. Pallant is now a successful mix of the new and old.

The £8.6 million project provides a new home for the gallery’s collection of modern art, which features work by Peter Blake, Patrick Caulfield and Richard Hamilton.

Caulfield was also the subject of a touring exhibition. Other recent shows have included The Scottish Colourists and John Tunnard. Recommended.

Fabrica, Brighton

Upon closer inspection, a Regency church building in Brighton city centre reveals itself to be a dramatic, cavernous space for contemporary art.

There are four main shows each year and Fabrica champions site-specific crafts, large scale sculptures, lens based installations and interactive, digital media.

Artists working with the gallery are encouraged to push their boundaries. John Grade, Tina Gonzales and Brian Eno have all risen to the challenge in recent months.

Towner Gallery, Eastbourne

On the face of it, you would not expect to see work by the likes of Damien Hirst or Bill Viola in sleepy Eastbourne.

But thanks to a purpose built gallery at the bargain price of £8.5m the town is waking up to contemporary art. Since April 2009, Towner has welcomed almost 70,000 visitors.

The three-floor Rick Mathers building is now a South Downs landmark, a regional destination, and the last thing you’d expect to find in a seaside resort.

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea

Fans of architecture should also be delighted by the nearby De La Warr Pavilion. This is a modernist marvel by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Charnayeff.

Seventy years after completion, the building was renovated in 2005 at a cost of £8m, confirming its original purpose to bring culture and leisure to the people of Bexhill.

Half a million visitors a year now visit the Grade-I listed building, which Mendelsohn called a “horizontal skyscraper”. High quality exhibitions make for stunning interiors too.

Jerwood Gallery, Hastings

The Jerwood Foundation has an art collection in search of a permanent home and some say Hastings is in need of redevelopment. So the town should have a new gallery by June 2011.

The £4 million development on the Stade in Hastings Old Town is not without its critics. One survey found 82% of local fishermen opposed to it. One can only hope they will be charmed by the Foundation’s collection of Modern British painting.

Folkestone Triennial

For contemporary art of the public variety, Folkestone is the place to be. In 2008 the first Triennial invited a host of international names to respond to the locality.

Tacita Dean, Jeremy Deller and Mark Wallinger all took part. Tracey Emin’s work, Baby Things, remains on show as one of 8 permanent commissions.

22 artists will be invited to contribute to the second Triennial in 2011. At this rate the town will run out of display space.

Ebbsfleet Landmark Project

Several artists competed for the commission to design and build an ‘Angel of the South’ to rival Anthony Gormley’s statue outside Newcastle.

But it is Mark Wallinger who is busy on the public art project in nearby Ebbsfleet, where a 50m high white horse will become one of the most monumental artworks anywhere in the world.

The £2 million statue will be visible for 20 miles and is planned for completion by 2012, although funding issues have beset the project.

Turner Contemporary, Margate

More exciting construction is underway in North Kent with Turner Contemporary due to open in Margate next year.

Acclaimed British architect David Chipperfield is building a coastal fortress for art at a cost of £17.4 million pounds. It will become one of the largest galleries in the region.

The site once housed a guest house where JMW Turner would often stay. He once remarked that the skies over nearby Thanet were “the loveliest in all Europe.”

Whitstable Bienniale

Along with a retro, smalltown feel, Whitstable now has a highly contemporary, cosmopolitan arts biennale – note the Italian spelling.

Between June 19 and July 4 2010, they celebrate the festival for the fifth time. Nine new works have been commissioned including a Leah Elsey and Sonia Uddin piece that runs until 2012.

Art must-sees for the month: June

With surrealism and sound, fauna and flesh, there is much to tempt you indoors this June. Here’s some monthly highlights for contemporary art written for Culture24.

Cage Mix: Sculpture and Sound, BALTIC, Gateshead

Eight artists who work with the ideas and writings of John Cage are brought together by design rather than chance. Their schemes for musical notation and scoring are here overlapped and juxtaposed as in the avant garde composer’s early work Fontana Mix.

Spencer Tunick – Everyday People, The Lowry Gallery, Manchester

Photographer Spencer Tunick responds to the paintings of LS Lowry with mass nudity on location in Salford and Manchester. May be seen as a comment on the passing of industrialisation or at least a curious thing you don’t see every day.

A Horse Walks Into A Bar, Castlefield Gallery, Manchester

We relate to the animal world in so many ways that here nine different artists make use of video, painting, performance, photography and sculpture to explore the issues. Mark Wallinger, Richard Billingham and Corey Arnold are among the humans.

Venice @ Golden Thread Gallery, Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast

Four names represented Eire and Northern Ireland at Venice last year and this is a chance to both shows: from the North, Sarah MacWilliam, and from the South, Sarah Browne, Gareth Kennedy and a Browne/Kennedy hybrid called Kennedy Browne.

Francis Alÿs – A Story of Deception, Tate Modern, London

Here is another famous Belgian for inclusion in the much-loved parlour game, albeit one who lives in Mexico. Even this transposition seems like one of Alys’s poetic stunts, most of which should be documented in this major, comprehensive show.

Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Kati Horna, Pallant House, Chichester

Pallant House brings another less explored chapter of art history to light with a show of surrealism from rarely shown female artists. Carrington, Varo and Horna were respectively an English painter, a Spanish painter and a Hungarian photographer.

Review: Goldsmiths Design 2010 at Free Range

Free Range is at the Old Truman Brewery, East London

Exhibition: Goldsmiths Design 2010 – Curious, 10th Annual Free Range Art and Design Show, Old Truman Brewery, London. Free Range runs until July 26 2010

Necessity is not always the mother of invention. For the students in Goldsmiths Design 2010 it would appear to be the last thing on their minds.

How else could you explain a machine which pulls a party popper when you least expect it? Anticipation and surprise are replaced by tedium and shock

Simon Cordery has also bought electric birthday cake candles to his final year show. You snuff the flames at the flick of a wrist. It is anti-climax by design.

Such devices are just one response to what must have been a very open brief from tutors at the South London university. Rather than waste their time designing chairs and signage, Goldsmiths students are encouraged to explore the margins of their field.

Another mischievous solution to a problem you never knew existed was Swipe Aid. Robert Allen’s smart card system helps you give money to beggars without the potential awkwardness of a face to face interaction.

Meanwhile, goose bumps may seem like an atavistic hangover, a physiological design flaw even. And yet Avril O’Neil gives us ready access to the syndrome by attaching a feather to the end of an extended drill bit.

Some work was as ambitious as it was impractical. Livia Rossi has developed tri-valve party balloons to be inflated by three people at once. The goal is for a shared perception of time.

Time also concerns Sara Abu-Hejleh. A pair of handlebars with fans attached is designed to provoke youthful memories of a breezy cycle ride. Her other attempts to rejuvenate the elderly included a near-static swing seat.

Of course there was some hard evidence that Goldsmiths design students can be as useful as any others. Rachel Cockburn has sparked professional interest with a sustainable eating website which helps users find local produce locally.

But while most projects do not seem to have immediate real world applications, they do capture the imagination, originally, efficiently and effectively. If that was the brief, they’ve cracked it.

Written for Culture24.