Category Archives: contemporary painting

Michael Craig-Martin, Untitled (travel adaptor), 2014


The Instruction Manual by John Ashbery is a poem of some 74 lines, which mentions more than 30 colours. And these colours evoke Guadalajara, Mexico, a place the speaker hasn’t even seen.

But having said that, he pictures it well. His senses appear to have been sharpened by the deadline for a technical writing gig, and they soon take flight through an imaginary window.

Michael Craig-Martin is, in his turn, something of a technical illustrator who makes a lively escape into colour. Here you see a sherwood green adaptor with sunny yellow tines and a blood-red interior.

There is nothing naturalistic about this; it is as oneiric as the journey to Mexico in the poem we’ve already seen. But the pleasure is anchored in the familiar form of a travel appliance.

What is it about precision, in writing or draftsmanship, that sets off the imagination? Is it the fact that in both these disciplines, colour is proscribed, a banned and hallucinatory substance.

What with the smoke alarm. the memory stick and the hotel door handle (all of which feature alongside this adaptor), Craig-Martin never makes it out of his room. No en plein air for him.

And so, much of the show suggests the paraphernalia of travel, and this survey reads a little like the difficult third album of a rock band who only write about life on the road. I jest.

There is a case to call this pop art. And I think a more difficult case to compare it with photorealism. Certainly it shares some of the powers of observation, some of the decision making.

Craig-Martin talks about this with artist Liam Gillick. He plays down the role of invention in art, in favour of observation. Gillick meanwhile downgrades inspiration in favour of visual choices.

It is a fascinating discussion and well worth a look if you pick up the catalogue. If nothing else the beautiful 120 page book will give you something to cling to. Like a plug socket in Guadalajara.

Michael Craig-Martin: Transience can be seen at Serpentine Gallery, London, until February 14 2016.

Shane Finan, ADA (2015)

shane finan

There’s the painting you can see and the work of art you can only grasp in the mind: 96 panels that will soon make their way through the world’s postal networks and scatter the material object.

Shane Finan’s painting is a landscape jigsaw, where interiors and exteriors interrelate and a bridge connects the artist’s studio to the wider world and to the eventual destination of the piece.

Already the monumental work is travelling the global networks. You may come across it on blogs like this, tweets like this, and status updates like this. But I’m not the only one expressing interest.

Some 25 percent of the panels are sold. The sale ends Friday, at which point the artist will know how much his project has raised for peripatetic, non profit gallery Wandelbar Art International.

Never mind the transience of this art work, it is also pragmatic. In crowdfunding, it has a clear role, which is more than you can say for most art. We know contemporary art struggles with utility.

ADA stands for A Distributed Archipelago and, in Turkish, ada means island. Finan is interested in insularity, which, as he points out, has more to do with digital networking than you might think.

We are more connected than ever, but the quality of our online relations remains in question. Art, which generally requires your physical presence, might be the apotheosis of connection.

Perhaps that is why austerity governments value it so little. That makes archipelagoes a timely and potent image: a cluster of discrete entities joined up more closely than it seems at first.

Though we might only break the surface here and there, via text and telecommunications, we form a chain of continuous being to which we’ll only return once buried or scattered ourselves.

More information can be found on the artist’s website. To invest in an island, visit the gallery site.

Corinna Spencer, Portrait of a Lady (2015)

corinna spencer

There is something maddening about Corinna Spencer’s installation. Her 1,000 portraits have a compulsive, destructive streak which would surely destroy the mental equilibrium of any sitter.

The lady in question is already disintegrating. Eyes look out from somewhere behind the face. The lipstick is smeared on quick, perhaps as if for a public appearance in Bedlam.

Each board is 21 by 15 cm, a modest size. But there is nothing modest about their cumulative effect. The artist has spoken about her interest in obsessive love. Well, here it is, grandly embodied.

It was Gertrude Stein who once claimed there was no such thing as repetition. And yet the pre-eminent American writer made a specialism of repetitive literary portraits. Why should this be?

Unlike landscape, the face generally contains half a dozen similar features in a similar arrangement. A spot of flâneurism will confirm that urban life is an endless procession of this essential pattern.

Spencer’s own brand of portraiture is somewhere between the impressionistic or visually fleeting and the expressionistic or psychological. We are possibly too late to use the relative ‘isms’.

Above all, it is monomaniacal. In an interview with Yvette Greslé, the artist claimed her four figure sum of portraits represented “a reasonable number of paintings”.  But no, 1,000 is a crazy number.

Really, it is “the madness of art”, to quote Henry James, whose own, Portrait of a Lady, another epic example of portraiture, appeared, much like these paintings, in serial form. So many quotes today…

As John Cage said of music: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

Spencer has never been boring. But it’s fair to say she is getting more and more interesting as she expands on monolithic series like this one, a fascinating, skewed take on traditional portraiture.

Portrait of a Lady can be seen at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery until 17 January 2016.

Hannah Knox, Buff (2013)

courtesy of the artist and Ceri Hand Gallery, Photographer Anna Arca
courtesy of the artist and Ceri Hand Gallery, Photographer Anna Arca

Painting is an empty pocket. The content it once contained, the paint itself, has in many cases gone. In all cases now, a stretched canvas is a blank canvas. Put in it what you will.

So the unadorned white t-shirt you see here, the unifying image from a show which shares its name, is more than a sly joke. It is a comment on the nowness of its chosen medium.

It was made in 2013, but it echoes the 1980s which in turn echoed the 1950s. As Knox has said, it could make you think of Marlon Brando. It could even make you think of the band Bros.

Those of us on the wrong side of history, during that turbulent decade, may have shown a preference for a darker, or more fey, English look. But here is the triumph of a cotton icon.

It is as large and wide as any buddha and all the more potent for its facelessness. Buff is a strong word for it, suggesting the ripped muscles we cannot see. The muscles of thought.

Because this is a show fully engaged with the body and the world of fashion. No two works are much the same. And the artist has even named one after the season, Fall 13.

Fashion is a threat to anyone with artistic leanings. It implies that any success is temporal. It implies that your audience has the most superficial of relationships with your work.

But Knox is not afraid of catwalks and collections. She grew up in what you might call a fashion household. This could be her greatest strength, acceptance.

So again the Buddha smiles. And given that Knox has spoken about her mother’s death in relation to her show, is Buff not also a ghost of sorts? And if it be a ghost, might it not be the zeitgeist itself?

If so, it is still waiting for your input. You might not find a better receptacle for your own ideas about art than Buff in the show BUFF at Ceri Hand Gallery. At least not this season.

Hannah Knox: BUFF can be seen at Ceri Hand Gallery, London, until October 26 2013. See gallery website for more details.

Adrian Ghenie, The Hunted (2010)

He might not know it yet, but the subject of The Hunted is right where Adrian Ghenie wants him. This baboon has been cornered on a coffee table.

That’s the kind of place you would expect to find a book about art. And indeed this photolike monkey fades into a black outline on what could be a cave wall.

So…art’s connection with hunting dates back to prehistory. But who in these enlightened days or places would ever hunt a baboon. You wouldn’t eat the thing.

Though if you were you a painter, you might want to study it. This painting is the most colourful in Ghenie’s show, as if the whole canvas is a simian face or backside.

It may be out of place in what looks like a modernist home in northerly climes. But the artist has an understanding with the creature, who allows himself to be painted.

A mix of found images and scraped paint make his work look like it is peeling away, much like the bark on those birch trees outside. What else might they peel away?

Someone here has taken off his jacket and the baboon’s glare might even divest you of the trappings of civilisation. This painting brings out a primitive streak.

Such an exotic encounter is surely what a gallery visitor is hunting for. And if they happen to be a collector, well, the monkey stands no chance.

Adrian Ghenie can be seen at the Haunch of Venison London until 8 October 2011. See gallery website for a film about the show, but also check out this sceptical review on A Kick Up the Arts blog.

George Shaw: The Sly and Unseen Day

George Shaw, No Returns, 2009, Humbrol enamel on board

As widely noted, the biggest shock of this year’s Turner Prize shortlist is painter George Shaw’s affinity with the enthusiasts who build model Spitfires.

He doesn’t hide the fact that Humbrol enamel is his medium of choice. And it now looks like a conceptual statement carried to an extreme. He will have got through gallons.

Most use these paints straight from the tin. So the scene above works like a joke at its own expense. Painting the fence looks to have been very much like painting a real fence.

At other times, Shaw renders graffiti or brickwork in a way that recalls the literal-minded approach of a man finishing off a masterpiece of glue and plastic.

There is little individualism to these works. And that may be why so many British visitors can see their own childhoods and adolescence in the scenes. It’s as if we all grew up in Tile Hill.

It is perverse to come from art school these days and make nostalgic, representational art. And what’s more it is perverse to use the materials he does, as the artist himself admits.

George Shaw knows better and we know he knows better. But the fact he has persisted in this project for 15 years, and that we may well enjoy the results, is intriguing.

That’s not a guilty pleasure, but it is surely an illicit one. The Coventry estate here is a place where none of us are up to any good, where even hanging around could be the biggest of risks.

The Sly and Unseen Day can be seen at South London Gallery until 3 July 2011. See gallery website for more details.

They’ve also posted a video clip where Shaw gets embarrassed about using Humbrol paints! For an equally revealing interview with the artist see this Guardian interview from earlier this year.

Ben Ashton, 01:23 Monday, 13:30 Sunday, 13:04 Sunday, 23:39 Wednesday, 20:00 Thursday, 15:37 Sunday, 13:35 Sunday, 04:23 Saturday and 17:45 Tuesday (2011)

Although there may be no candles in these painted scenes, there is arguably candlelight. There is certainly romance and the echoes of a nocturnal interior by, say, Georges de la Tour.

And in this light the vulnerable nudes, of which there are three, also call to mind Rembrandt. It may be worked out they are Ben Ashton’s wife. Other panels show them together and him at work.

But whereas a gilt frame might invite you in to an intimate scene by a baroque master, Ashton has crafted three-dimensional wood panels which throw these domestic scenes into relief.

Six of the paintings are on trapezoid blocks which look like inversions of sacred icons. Three are on roundels or plaques which look designed for the exterior of a building, not a gallery wall.

These intimate scenes have not been casually thrust upon us. The rightmost panel shows the artist hard at work sawing and planing the rest of the piece. But he looks unaware of the end result.

The leftmost panel shows his wife (we can work out the relation between them) bent over a screen. It is one of the nudes, lit by the glow of a laptop rather than a secretive 17th century candle.

It is tempting to say that here it is the internet which has turned the modern home inside out. But painters have long revealed their interior life and the life of their interiors.

In the flanking panels of this installation, Ashton appears to set the old and new technologies in opposition. Perhaps that is why in a self portrait in panel eight he looks so full of doubt.

But since each element of this wall is titled with a day of the week and a time from the 24hr clock, it suggests he too embraces digital technology. Just as in panel three he embraces his wife.

As this all suggests, the piece has a creeping sense of drama. Two of the most engaging panels show the pair denuding themselves with, respectively face cream and shaving foam.

In other words, it is a soap opera. Where painters once used candlelight to heighten the pictorial drama, in a digital age they can (must?) use irony and art historical references.

Ben Ashton’s work can be seen in group show Shifting Boundaries at Phoenix, Brighton, until 12 June 2011. See gallery website for more details. And read an interview with the artist on london art.

Jonathan Wateridge, Jungle Scene With Plane Wreck (2007)

One thing we can know about cave paintings is they tended to show stuff outside the cave. So art got started as a way of showing what was not actually visible at the time.

Take this scene of a passenger jet stranded in a jungle. A film crew would have gone all the way to a sub-tropical location to get an image like this. Wateridge has not left his studio.

Of course, films get made in studios and paintings get made from nature. But perhaps imagining and recording are still the fundamental aspects of fine art and camerawork respectively.

Where there is little question a scene was painted from life, art becomes an invitation to imagine, rather than an argument to believe.

So painting seems more honest than film. They say the camera never lies, but it lies by implication. Film-makers make an apparent claim to witness the most fantastical stuff.

The work in question mixes it up. The artist has made a model of a plane and crashed that in his studio, using the technique of an SFX department to spur on his vision.

Call this a piece of self-deception. But there may be a trick like this behind every great work of the imagination.

Three paintings by Jonathan Wateridge can be seen in Newspeak: British Art Now Part II at Saatchi Gallery until April 17 2011.

Tom Ellis, The Dogs (2010)

The first words which spring to mind are of course ‘dogs’ and another beginning with F. Whichever order you put them in will depend on your attitude to the animals and act in question. But either way, it first reduces the painting to a cheap joke at the expense of painting itself.

Although there seems to be another picture here. Something in the incline of the canine heads hints at romance. Disengaged from the waist down, this could also be a human couple, sharing the view of a sunset perhaps. We can see ourselves here surely.

Either dogs are more refined than we give them credit for or we are no better in our relationships. It is still a joke, but now appears to be a better one.

The greyness is funnier too. Two isolated figures in a landscape might also have been Romantic with a capital R. But those wishing to project their souls onto this scenery will have to admit to a certain lack of drama and colour in their lives.

And given the activity shown here and the possible love between two sentient beings, boringness is a nice touch. But there are shades of grey. The sky is light. It is quite pretty, really.

The Dogs can be seen in Newspeak: British Art Now Part Two at Saatchi Gallery. You can read a review by Laura McLean-Ferris in the Independent, here. Three stars seems about right. Meanwhile, my review for Culture24 can be found here.

Newspeak: British Art Now runs  until April 27 2011. For more details see the Gallery website.