“Sometimes lo-fi stuff is more immediate": Corinna Spencer interview below.

Sam Ayres, Work Programme 28

Posted: January 20th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: contemporary art, site specific art | No Comments »


When even the pawnbrokers are strapped for cash, you know we are in trouble. This sign, using poor materials, was a focal point in Sam Ayres’ recent show at CAC.

Other exhibits included a local church made from cardboard boxes and thatched with the pages of homeless-vendor magazine Big Issue. The slates had apparently been stolen.

Then there was the small matter of a masonic bib gaffer taped to the wall. Thus Ayres drew together a strange trinity of usury, protestantism and clandestine power.

The avowed influence here is Max Weber, whose protestant ethic thesis ties the rise in capitalism to the increase in private enterprise in 16th century Calvinist societies in Northern Europe.

Perhaps there is an ironic dimension to the church in question. It is only five or six years since the French Protestant Church of Brighton was sold to a property developer.

Even if, before the church was consecrated in 1888, the local mayor laid a foundation stone with a special trowel. One imagines special trowels are pretty rich in masonic symbolism.

Yet, it was never plain sailing for the early protestants of Brighton. In the 16th century a refugee from Liège, Deryck Carver, was burned at the stake for holding bible readings.

And whereas more than £1500 was drummed up for an eventual church, the Rev J. Gregory warned that this was “stirring the Lord’s fire with the devil’s poker”.

With the announcement today that just 85 people are as wealthy as the poorer half of the globe, we can see that the devil’s poker continues to be hard at work.

Of course, pawnbrokers are pretty non-denominational. Indeed, they’ve been around for longer than Christianity. So the inclusion of golden balls in this show is tantalising.

But the practice is said to have come to these shores with the Norman invasion. So like the church, they offer another French spin (Hastings is nearby) on a fine site-specific display.

Work Programme 28 opened (and closed) at Community Arts Centre, Brighton, on Saturday 18 January. Sorry if you missed it.

Charlie Billingham, Port Tack (2013)

Posted: January 16th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: contemporary art, installation art | No Comments »


A market in ancient Greece is distinguishable from the art market, but by less than you might think. In both you find the free circulation of ideas along with goods and services.

Like any auction house, the agora was a place of assembly. It had a political role as much as a commercial one and the etym contains the verbs for both “shop” and “speak in public”.

But the marketplace in late capitalism is nothing if not competitive. Perhaps that is why Charlie Billingham has staged a boat race in his bright and cheerful solo show at Ceri Hand.

The boat in shot is one of three. It is in the lead. And if the title is to be heeded, it is taking a left turn. Thus while you shop, Billingham can’t help speaking in public.

And the Greek connection is surely relevant. The sea where this boat sails is a limpid tapestry of a watercolour, made by Billingham during a stay in the Greek Islands.

It was machine stitched in Belgium. Trust a more Northern country to bring in a mercantile context. These are the waters which surround us in the current global economy.

This might be a good time to note the title of the show, Tender. Gentle, yes, but also with a sense of currency. Art can be tender in both senses.

Yet there is something jolly and bracing about this tacking and jibing, etc. The installations take their shape and dimensions from Laser Pico sailing dinghies. Ie; vessels of pleasure.

This motif suggests the optimism of a upcoming artist who enjoys his vocation, also a race of sorts. It results in a vibrant, sunny show in a grey month.

So is it fair to read a political intention into this riot of colour and marine sports? Given the situation in Greece these days, it is hard to get away from that bias.

Fans of austerity, keep heading right. Those who would rather stimulate the arts with funding, or even patronage of any kind, get on board.

Charlie Billingham: Tender is at Ceri Hand, London, until Jaunary 18 2013. Read a profile of the artist here; he has moved on quite a bit from his work in the Saatchi Gallery.

Work Programme at CAC

Posted: January 13th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Brighton, contemporary art, residencies, Uncategorized | No Comments »

work programme

“Unfortunately, this being East Germany/Gert patriotically volunteered to be sent on a labour/Beautification course of the countryside north-west of Dresden/And never seen again.” *

There is something punitive about Work Programme at the gallery known as CAC. At time of writing we’re on edition 28, and more than 27 souls have already pitched in and given us shows. Work is on the tin; artists are expected to labour. And this is a Programme, a temporal and spatial structure which must be followed: fill a Brighton gallery in just six days and make it good.

But what results! Each one has been a triumph of the impossible. Rarely have so many, produced so much, in so little time and with so little cash. Hard graft has led to, I would say, miracles. And to arrive at a launch is always to see a familiar place rendered strange. Yet the next conscript moves in on the very next day. A Francis Alÿs piece comes to mind: Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing.

This important film, also called Paradox of Praxis, follows the Belgian artist as he pushes a block of ice around the streets of Mexico City. It takes an entire day for the sliding block of H2O to melt. So he is left with nothing (although of course he has a film). Work Programme also leads to nothing. But in both cases, nothing is not a failure but a good outcome.

Needless to say, in these austere times, Work Programme doesn’t pay. In this respect it is worse than sewing mail bags. But, if only for one week, free labour does allow artists to opt out from the dominant economy, with its hedge funds and its property ladders. It gives participants and audience, alike, access to another non-monetary system, that of the gift.

Anthropologists are not the only ones to have an interest in the gift-giving feast of potlatch. Found in North West Canada and some parts of the States, this competitive event is a non-lethal act of war. It asks which indigenous tribe can give away the most. Things get out of hand, buildings are burnt and possessions thrown in rivers.

Meanwhile back at CAC, shows open on saturday evening; on sunday they close. The spotlight lasts less than 24 hours. Work is removed, and often destroyed, before the weekend is out. This moves us away from the commodification of art and, in the subterranean space at CAC, we find a community of artists and friends surely tapping into something a little more primal.

And just as cells (correctional and/or monastic) are the most ambient of spaces. The architecture at 31 Queens Road are by now well charged with hard work, anxiety and at times, clearly, wild flights of inspiration. CAC might be the engine room of the Brighton art scene, making other gallery models look cumbersome.

But are they cumbersome, or merely humane? As demonstrated, this is a punishing model for art production. If it suggests a gulag or a camp, that would suit our provincial setting at the end of the A23. And by the way, a certain Mark E Smith (singer with The Fall) once described Brighton as a “cultural prison”**. To the best of my knowledge he has never been to Work Programme, but he would recognize it for what it is.

The first Work Programme of 2014 opens (and closes) on Saturday 18/01 at 7pm at Community Arts Centre, 31 Queens Road. The artist in residence is Sam Ayres.

*The Fall, Athlete Cured (from the 1988 album, The Frenz Experiment).

**Mark E Smith, Renegade (Penguin 2008), p.150

criticismism’s top posts of 2013

Posted: December 31st, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: aggregation, contemporary art | No Comments »


Tis (still, just) the season to be jolly and certainly the time of year for lazy reviews of the past 12 months. And should that review be in the form of a listicle, well all the merrier.

So here, in case you were wondering, are the most popular posts on criticismism in 2013:

  • Number 5: this was a cross post with Culture24 so chances are it got more views than the 288 who hit this page on my blog: an interview with Martin Creed
  • 4th place: 319 of you read, or gazed upon, my photodiary from Derry-Londonderry. I guess I should have pushed this some more during the Tuner Prize, but oh well.
  • In 3: Having enjoyed his work in Brighton’s House Festival, it was a pleasure to visit the studio of David Wightman for an interview (373 hits)
  • Second: was it a T-shirt? Was it a painting? Buff by Hannah Knox certainly pulled in some traffic. And so 463 visitors pondered similar questions
  • Top, by a country mile: 1,160 art lovers and/or hip hop fans joined me for a critical appraisal of the lyrics of Picasso Baby by Jay Z.

Most strangely, there’s a wealth of content dating back to 2009 which is still performing well. My all time top post is something short I wrote about Remedios Varo in 2010.

What might I learn from this? How might I improve? Answers on the back of a used Xmas card please.

Found Objects 24/12/13

Posted: December 24th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: aggregation, contemporary art | No Comments »

Is it the 24th already? In that case it’s time for some festive Found Objects. Many many thanks to anyone and everyone who has ever read this blog and season’s greetings/happy new year. I ramble.

  • We kick off with a wintry art quiz by Jonathan Jones at the Guardian. I only got seven out of ten which, while not quite shameful, is enough to have already spoiled my Christmas.
  • Also from the Guardian, ghost stories. Well, not the actually stories as such but a sociological account of their popularity. Meta xmas, everyone.
  • This is the most festive link of all, even if it dates back three years. Tyler Green’s 2010 advent calendar is a cornucopia of delights.
  • Many of you may well be in transit to friends and family in far flung places. But spare a thought for Pussy Riot, getting back from Siberia, and not a hint they’ve mellowed.
  • Prosthetic Knowledge pick their technology of the year on Rhizome.org. It’s the Oculus Rift and it’s frankly a bit scary if compared with two dimensional blogs like this one.
  • Christmas is a fine time for blazing rows, on the soaps at least. So those thoughtful folk at the Telegraph have put together a compilation of cultural spats from the last 12 months.
  • A white Christmas is guaranteed in the Alps and to get the most of it you must try this Skywalk, preferably with the slippers which prevent you from plunging a kilometre to your death.
  • FAD invite Kimberley Brown to bring her critical theory chops to selected works in the National Gallery. The results are tantalising if brief. Thanks to Ben Street for the link.
  • Just when you thought the Cariou v. Prince trial was done and dusted along comes a friends of the court brief and 45,000 petitioners to reopen proceedings. Hyperallergic unpicks the story
  • Finally, a bit late, but this was the highlight of the Mandela coverage for me. Comedian Mark Steel sends up the hypocrisy of some of those who, no doubt, are still deep in mourning.

The finite charms of the Chapman brothers

Posted: December 17th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: 20th century, contemporary art, installation art | No Comments »
Jake and Dinos Chapman, Installation view, Come and See, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, © 2013 Hugo Glendinning

Jake and Dinos Chapman,
Installation view, Come and See, Serpentine Sackler Gallery,
© 2013 Hugo Glendinning

In a book you can be fairly sure the Chapmans have read, A Thirst for Annihilation, philosopher Nick Land reports on the encounter between American GIs and the mass graves of the Nazi death camps.

If memory serves me right, many of the liberators, upon encountering piles of unburied bodies, said they experienced a rush-like death wish, a desire to be just so many more nameless bodies.

Such transgressive feelings are, apparently, impossible to recreate in a gallery. But the two enfants terrible have surely tried, having peopled several dioramas with thousands of tiny model corpses.

These museum-like cases, which also feature Nazi soldiers and the cast of a McDonalds Happy Meal, are, rather than annihilating, just plain fun. They are fun in the way Bosch or Breugel are fun.

Which is to say they combine a picture book pleasure with a wealth of comic detail. But the power of these pieces is contained by the glass behind which they sit. There is no leakage.

Humour is everywhere in the current retrospective at Serpentine. You will have heard about the KKK, no doubt. Expect your visit to be joined by a score of Klansmen in rainbow socks and sandals.

It’s the socks which really annoy, as if there were no other viewpoints in art rather than fascist or woolly new age-ism. This blogger is guilty of a bit of that. But it’s not the full story, surely.

Compare the Chapmans’ dioramas to a serious piece of political art and they lose their impact. Alfredo Jaar, for example, has made a devastating film about Rwanda with not a snigger in sight.

Wherever the power lies these days, these pillaging Nazis and totemic fast food clowns are the straw men of contemporary art; they are panto villians rather than an immediate threat.

But, in keeping with the metaphor of seasonal theatre, the Chapman brothers themselves are always “behind you”. Half the works in the retrospective are scruffy cardboard send ups of modernism.

And what can you say about a world in which a stuffed fox is shagging a stuffed hare, which mounts a stuffed rabbit, which is having it away with a rat, who in turn screws an unfortunate mouse.

To suggest the mouse will inherit the earth would be to no doubt invite peals of laughter. There is no getting away from the law of the jungle, the reign of capital or kings.

But what can you do with this art? The closest it gets to transcendence is a grim money shot in an explicit film which is coupled with a children’s choir singing Morning is Broken.

In a several rapid strokes, innuendo intended, the Chapmans reduce religion to the side effect of an onanistic handjob. It is, once again, hard to argue against. The show is a closed circle.

Starting with the holocaust and the ravages of capitalism, here are their glib conclusions. But imagine how limited he might appear had Picasso spent his whole career riffing off Guernica.

Forgive me if I shelter behind a monumental piece of 20th century art to round off my criticisms of Jake and Dinos. But what gets them out of bed in the morning and why not make art about that?

Jake and Dinos Chapman: Come and See is on view at Serpentine Sackler Gallery until 9 Feburary 2014.

Richard Serra, Courtauld Transparency #4 (2013)

Posted: December 5th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: abstract art, contemporary art, drawing, Uncategorized | No Comments »


What’s behind a painting or drawing, literally? The reverse of a canvas is a necessary mystery, with its potential for jottings, classifications, signatures and in some cases failed attempts.

In terms of drawing, Serra knows enough about failure. The 14 works made for the Courtauld are to some degree beyond his control. So the rejects “far outweigh” the successes*.

Still, he presents us here with the hint of a reverse side, a see-though,’ canvas’. This is the first time a museum has shown his drawings on transparent Mylar.

You soon realise that behind a contemporary drawing by Serra, you will find only more drawing. Litho crayon sticks to both sides of his material, as it floats in its frame.

They are something to get your head around. The American artist will coat two sheets of Mylar with crayon and then sandwich another sheet between them.

As he applies pressure to the topmost sheet, his ink adheres to both sides of the filling. So when he takes away the outer layers, it reveals an image he may or may not like.

Hard to say what Serra looks for. But on the evidence here it is: density, dirt, and a lack of gestalt forms. It’s as if he comes to the Courtauld Institute to put another full stop on art history.

The artist has hoped these works will leave you feeling hollow to the pit of your stomach. But what this blogger reports is a panicky failure to grasp the process at once, a frustration.

You want to pull apart these frames and see both sides. You want to see the process at work. You want to see the rejects. Despite the transparency of his materials, the mystery is increased.

*According to a fine catalogue essay by Barnaby Wright, which also has interesting things to say about Cezanne’s influence on Serra.

Read on: Time Out saw more menace than mystery in the show. Jonathan Jones in the Guardian likens the work to a black sun.

Richard Serra: Drawings for the Courtauld can be seen at The Courtauld Gallery, London, until 12 January 2014

Sara Shamma, Q (2011)

Posted: December 1st, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: conflict, contemporary art, painting | No Comments »


A queue is a Q is a question. Perhaps ‘what are we waiting for’ or ‘why are we waiting’. The answer will depend on your location, class and political circumstances.

In the West we are on the whole happy to queue for a checkout or a cash point. It is, as Jessica Lack points out in the publication for this show, the sign of a ‘civilised way of life’.

But artist Sara Shamma lines up some 10 characters who would surprise you if you met them at your local post office. They are at times translucent, weightless and ethereal.

So, another question, why might ghosts join a queue? Perhaps the queue in this painting represents the scene of a trauma, such as the flight of Shamma’s Syrian compatriots.

Her monumental work is 17m long and is to be read as a series and a circular one at that. Panel one features a mother and child, panel ten: a child and a foetus.

This loops her sad procession into infinity. It would be interesting to know of the first queue in history, just as it would be frightening to receive advance warning of the last.

There is also a menagerie on this road to ruin: elephant, ostrich, ape and shark alike are in line for a so-called promised land. They give the whole scene a certain freakiness.

But what could be more freaky than the frightened population of one city all packing up, leaving home, and heading for a border. The animals tell it like it is.

Another widespread motif is the ironic balloon. Were it not for the anguished expressions here and there you might conclude this was a carnival.

Many of those faces, however, show the skull beneath the skin. Some are treated with the grainy black and white of newsprint. Some feature thick, expressionistic daubing.

The queue has many facets. Shamma breaks the continuity in panel five by painting a line of faceless figures snaking off to the horizon and back. Newsworthy numbers here.

And in a Dalí-esque touch the artist hints at comfort with a tiny chair suspended above a vast abyss. If society breaks down, this epic painting may come back to you.

Q ends on December 2 2013. So get in line at the Upper Gulbenkian Gallery at the Royal College of Art, London.

Sean Scully, Stare (1984)

Posted: November 20th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: abstract painting, contemporary art | No Comments »

Stare for blog

Is the title of this Sean Scully work an imperative? I only ask because gallery visitors can do little else when confronted with this three-panelled masterpiece from the 1980s.

So we stare . . . but whatever we seek, paint is all we might find. Bands of off-white and off-black, inspired by bleached bone and charred wood, line up like blinds or a grille against a window.

Like most of Scully’s work, Stare pulls you towards its own surface and apprehends you there. The only content or subject of the work being colour in horizontal and vertical brushstrokes

It has been suggested that Stare has a gaze of its own. Given the year of its production, the title hints at Orwellian surveillance, but this is in all probability a red herring, nothing to do with abstract art.

So here, rather than Big Bro’, it is the artist who looks at us. And as is quite often said of written texts, this painting allows Scully to read the viewer, rather than vice versa.

(This idea was touted around by Derrida. Although in a recent Q&A with the artist at Pallant, Scully said he read just enough about deconstruction to know he didn’t need to read any more. Well…)

Here’s how the painting reads this viewer. The Long Island beach, said to have thrown up this palette, also makes me think of winter sunlight seen from polluted city streets.

And yet even a darkening sky can give you a sense of infinity; so the same might be said of these arresting brush strokes. Why? Because art, like ourselves, is infinitely expressive.

That’s not to say a proverbial three year old could have made this work. Unless they belong to you in some way, children are much less interesting than artists. Despite what Picasso said.

No, the irresistible appeal of Stare must be the promise that, by complying with its intention, you could share a visionary experience with a gifted artist. But NB: all experiences will be your own.

Sean Scully: Triptychs can be seen at Pallant House, Chichester, UK until  26 January  2014

Found Objects 18/11/13

Posted: November 18th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: aggregation, contemporary art | No Comments »

Seven more days slip by with but a handful of stories to cling to. Click on:

  • There’s now a Kafka angle to the Munich art hoard story (interivew with Cornelius Gurlitt)
  • Here’s another good Nazi art theft yarn. What became of the Mona Lisa?
  • Museum-show of the season is not in a museum at all. A Kick Up the Arts visits Hauser & Wirth
  • When was the last time art changed your outlook on life (thanks @TheodoreArt)?
  • If you can bear it, here’s how to talk up a $142m dollar sale
  • Objects, and ignorance, are both on the rise according to J.J. Charlesworth: a good analysis
  • And so the Al-Wakrah sports stadium, now under construction in Qatar, resembles a vagina
  • Tyler Green takes you on a road trip with a compendium of highway-inspired art works
  • If you suspect algorithms are out to get you, this Kyle Chayka piece is essential reading
  • Martin Gayford mines his new book to give us an account of the rivalries which fuelled the renaissance.

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