“Artists are so bizarre and come from such strange places”: Glenn Ligon interview below

Ambrosine Allen @ DOLPH Projects

allen

One (the?) aim of art writing is to interpret with words. But the imagery of so much art is so strong, that verbal language can only play an ernest second fiddle, happy just to be at the gig.

(Works of literature isolate themselves on shelves and in libraries. Aware they fail to represent the visible world, they content themselves with creating numerous new worlds unto themselves.)

But twas not ever thus. In the beginning there was indeed the word. Religious art was famously for the illiterate. And centuries later the illustrative arts were pressed into the service of science.

You can see how uneasy the relationship between knowledge and image remains. Wikipedia, the world’s favourite source of germane facts, will limit itself to marginal and no-cost imagery.

Allen’s show harks back to a time before the deluge. Less was once more. A miniature black and white illustration, along with columns of academic text, would give the imagination plenty to go on.

The authority of bygone encyclopaedias was such that even the most casual reader could learn to see the world through a prism of classification, sober order and, yet, no small degree of wonder.

Nothing like this can be imposed on the world wide web. Pixels are hazy compared with the rigours of print. Digital photography, in its ubiquity, lacks the intensity and intention of the diagram.

And some of the mystery too. Allen’s show collects antique imagery which ranges around a much larger planet when the ends of the world were visited in books rather than google Earth.

But as can be seen from the careless photograph at the head of this piece, the repositories of info are now bursting at the seams. The history of knowledge has exploded on us.

Ambrosine Allen: The Art of the Small can be seen at DOLPH, London, until 19 March 2016. See web for opening times and directions.


Jeffrey Charles Henry Peacock, The Captive (2014)

Installation view (detail)

Installation view (detail)

JCHP are a two-man art ‘team’, who have been accused of ‘nigh-on psychotic self-analysis’ (in their own catalogue to boot*). So where to start and what to add?

First, it’s a relief that Jeffrey Charles Henry Peacock are in fact hard grafting artists Dave Smith and Thom Winterburn. Thankfully, they’re not just one horrendously posh bloke.

One of their chief interests is artistic labour. They spend a lot of time making reproductions of historic prints which they have in the past given away or exhibited unfinished.

They have been opposed to conventional exhibiting. Yet both were gallerists before joining forces as art producers, albeit artists whose practice includes exhibition making.

But now they’ve opted for a suck-it-and-see approach with a single drawing on display in a small but critical Brighton space, Neuefroth Kunstallle.

And they’ve gone all out to put their work on a notional pedestal. It is triple mounted and beautifully framed beneath spotlights. That’s some self-conscious over egging.

It might all be just good fun, were not the focus of all this attention being an 18th century print of a desperate prisoner: Sterne’s Captive by Joseph Wright of Derby.

Thus a Laurence Sterne novel, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, offers another frame (of reference) for this lugubrious and slavish copy.

Although in Sterne’s narrative the prisoner is released when guards realise he is the jester Yorick, a literary personage who would have seen the funny side of JCHP’s complex new artefact.

The artists put the seal on this exquisite work with the signatures of both the original artist and his engraver. Their own name appears below this, crisply embossed. The mediation is rich.

But since the exhibition is to be considered as a whole, it’s worth mentioning the dense sheet of A3 text which accompanies the copy, of the print, of the satirical novel.

Here is where the psychotic self-analysis comes into play. The notes are as prevaricating as Sterne himself could be. The language is formal, florid, only occasionally funny.

But for a minute the recollection of JCHP as a some anachronistic dandy comes strutting back into mind. And we might be stuck with the posh bloke. That after all is the art world for you.

The show can be viewed by appointment until December 13 or during a public viewing on Saturday 29 November 2014. See Neuefroth Kunsthalle.

* See Richard Birkett’s essay in Critical Decor: A Short Organum for Exhibition


Richard Serra, Courtauld Transparency #4 (2013)

http://www.courtauld.ac.uk

http://www.courtauld.ac.uk

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


Chris Agnew, Sacrifice (2012)

If superstition ran riot, might not every human casualty take on the complexion of a sacrifice. Every death would register as an appeasement of one of our many gods.

Admittedly, that is wacko. But here Chris Agnew juxtaposes what must be the most rational system of government, communism, with one of the least, Mayan.

In times of drought, enemy blood would have flowed atop of Chichen Itza pyramid in Mexico. Slower deaths may have been experienced in this Bucharest tower block.

It is arguable that both civilisations fed on the blood of their enemies. Sorry, make that all civilisations. Agnew’s drawing hints we may all be irredeemably primitive.

But no one can deny our talent for inspiring fear and wonder, through the monuments we construct or the or the artworks we hang on the wall.

This drawing, for example, is a marvel of concentration and detail. Agnew has built his pyramid with perhaps as much slavery as art, brick by tiny brick.

And it is terrifying to reflect that short of raising both pyramid and apartment block to the ground, we are bound to inherit something from them.

Perhaps an architectural synthesis of left and right wing is what we need. Or perhaps it is what we already have. We live in polarising times.

Sacrifice can be seen in Agnew’s solo show, The Pomp of Circumstances, at Nancy Victor Gallery, London, until July 6 2012. See gallery website for more details and check out the artist’s own website.


Leonardo Da Vinci, Studies of the Human Skull (1489)

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Studies of the human skull, 1489, Pen and ink on paper, 29 x 20 cm. Lent by Her Majesty The Queen (RL 19059). The Royal Collection © 2011, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

He may be one of the fifteenth century’s best known scientists and empiricists, but Leonardo has become synymous with mystery and obscurantism.

The smoke which blurs the features of his most famous painting, also coils around the edges of these burnt-brown anatomy drawings and the plans he made elsewhere for real world inventions.

So today it could be his legacy is most present in antiquated pen and ink studies like this, and in the backward-facing handwriting that accompanies them.

It’s not that we learned so much from his observations and blueprints. Leonardo is said to have kept his findings to himself. His machines were too fantastical for his era.

But filmmakers and game designers make heavy working use of the aesthetic of his private, ochre drawings and script. Skulls like these crop up all the time in movies and intro sequences.

It hardly need be mentioned that the secretive mood evoked by the old master’s researches also inspired one of the 21st century‘s best selling books.

In fact, the closer Leonardo came to understanding humanity and improving our lot, the further we now plunge him into the realms of the arcane and the hidden.

In our times of mapped DNA, our love of these smoky studies could be a nostalgia trip. I hope one day they can revisit our own scientific reports with as much delight.

This work can be seen in Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, The National Gallery, London. The show runs until 5 February 2012 see gallery website for more details.


Maxime Angel, Let My Eyes Be Your Mirror

From the pencil shavings and strewn magazines on the floor, it looks something like Maxime Angel has been living in the gallery. Indeed, there are reports she has slept on several works.

She may even have slept inside the containerboard on the wall. The gallery assistant tells me the college-trained artist was also for a period of time a rough sleeper. Cardboard was canvas.

Other details suggest Maxime is not exactly the girl next door. Visitors are confronted with the dark energy of a range of illustrated cocks and may spot two graphic all male orgy scenes.

A spot of (desk) research confirms the artist is transgender, and HIV positive. So the lead-blunting skulls here are not just for effect. The memento mori have been lived in as well.

Take away the biography and you would still have a show with charge. What it might lack in imagination and finesse, it makes up for with desire and suffering. No press release needed.

But the life story will still impress. Angel sounds like an outlaw. Her exposure to life on the streets and a deadly pandemic are among factors which might just authenticate this work.

Otherwise, it could still be said the show is a worthy example of an artistic tradition which dates back to the Salon des Refusés. It is powerful either way; too strong if anything.

Let My Eyes Be Your Mirror is at Centre for Recent Drawing, London, until 17 June 2011. See gallery website for more details. There’s a brief but interesting Q&A with the artist in Dazed Digital.


Why do so many artists choose The Fall?

This blog entry is being put together to the sound of The Fall, in an attempt to understand why so many artists claim, or are said, to draw or paint to the sound of Mark E Smith’s timeless band.

Usual conditions for producing these musings are, for the record, a joyless silence. There seems to be a need to isolate thoughts in order to put words down on a page or screen, for me at least.

But apparently, not so for artists, and at least three reasons suggest themselves for choosing The Fall over the many thousands of competing soundtracks: lyrics, rhythm and modus operandi.

Smith says in the Tate film (above) that his lyrics are open ended, but the reverse should be argued. Fall songs are packed with concrete nouns, names and places. Things get nailed down and perhaps visual artists relate to that.

However, the band’s krautrock(abilly) rhythms can easily be understood to help with long periods in the studio. The Fall lay down some of the busiest grooves in rock. One imagines that disciplined, purposeful lines and brushstrokes are the result.

The other apparent reason to paint to The Fall is their anti-muso stance. As Smith says, he tells musicians what to do and constructs the tracks like an engineer. Who wouldn’t want to work with pictorial elements in the way he works with instruments?

So there you have it, the wide appeal to artists of a unique band, as written while listening to the music itself. I’m sure it could have been finished in half the time without this racket, brilliant though it may be.

Your Future, Our Clutter by The Fall is out now on Domino Records.


Preview: Lily van der Stokker at Tate St Ives

Lily van der Stokker, I am an artwork, 2004, acrylic paint on wall and 220 x 300cm Feature, New York. © the Artist. courtesy Air de Paris, Paris

Exhibition: Lily van der Stokker – No Big Deal Thing, Tate St Ives, St Ives, until September 26 2010

The last great taboo in art appears not to be death, sex or religion. Instead, Lily van der Stokker suggests it is niceness.

The Dutch artist works in coloured pencil and pastel colours. She draws on A4 paper and then expands her decorative pieces to cover gallery walls.

With this childlike approach, hardly suited to any other themes, van der Stokker looks at beauty, love, relationships, and the family. Hers is an everyday world.

To some, her largest UK show to date will look out of place in a contemporary gallery. She has already exhibited at the Pompidou Centre, Paris.

So it has to be said that van der Stokker’s naïve and feminine art is calling some of those major taboos into question after all.

Visitors to St Ives may find themselves wondering why mainstream art is so solemn or so removed from the creativity of so-called ordinary folk.

If so, it will be job done for van der Stokker. She calls her work “nonshouting feminism”. You might also call it the softly, softly approach.

Written for Culture24.


Preview: Otto Zitko and Louise Bourgeois – Me, Myself and I

Exhibition: Otto Zitko and Louise Bourgeois – Me, Myself and I, Arnolfini, Bristol, until July 4 2010

Born in 1911, Louise Bourgeois has been drawing for nearly a century. Her recent works are “about the marking of time while waiting for someone special to arrive”, according to the French artist herself.

Her series of 60 works on show at Arnolfini are collectively titled JE T’AIME and are said to be as personal as that would suggest. But hearts and flowers do not come into it.

An early drawing from 1946, shown alongside the meditative later works, depicts two figures engaged in an act of cannibalism.

Bourgeois’s interest in human relationships has drawn her to psychoanalysis, and her interest in the field finds her paired up here with Austrian interventionist Otto Zitko.

Whereas the sculptor is interested in the Object Relations school of thought, Zitko inhabits an inflantile world of total subjectivity.

With an unbroken, improvised line he covers gallery walls on three floors and takes his abstract scrawl into the foyer and other social spaces.

They do say opposites attract – in which case, it is of course possible Zitko is that special someone Bourgeois has been waiting so long for.

Written for Culture24.


Art must-sees this month: May

Clara Ursitti, Ghost (2010). Courtesy Tatton Park Biennial. Photo: Thierry Bal

Here’s a selection of half a dozen of the most exciting contemporary art shows from around Britain this month. Written for Culture24.

Agnes Martin, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge
Martin’s minimal paintings, characterised by airy colours and hand-drawn grids, map out a fragile, yet peaceful, interior world. It makes sense that the Canadian-born artist took to painting in the desert and 10 works here are from her years in New Mexico.

The City and The Stars, Stills, Edinburgh
This show takes its name from a 1948 Arthur C Clarke novel and also explores the belief systems of a dying planet. Emma Kay, Craig Mulholland and Rut Blees Luxemburg are photographers who deal with memory, everyday life and the city.

Tatton Park Biennial 2010 – Framing Identity, Tatton Park, Knutsford
An old Toyota which smells like a Rolls Royce, a kitchen overrun with feathers and a machine built to fossilise a pineapple are among the surprises to be found in this Cheshire stately home. With more than 20 artists in their art biennial, there is a lot to see.

Otto Zitko and Louise Bourgeois – Me, Myself and I, Arnolfini, Bristol
Drawings on both a monumental and a personal scale takes their place side by side at Arnolfini. Austrian artist Zitko will draw directly onto the gallery walls in a bid to cover all three floors, while Bourgeois delivers intimate, abstract reflections on love.

Theo Jansen, Spacex, Exeter
If your Dutch is any good, you’ll know that Strandbeests translate as beach animals. But that still may not prepare you for the sight of Jansen’s 14-metre long skeletal monster, which is due to explore Exeter in June and July using wind-power alone.

Lily van der Stokker – No Big Deal Thing, Tate St Ives, St Ives
Another artist from the Netherlands takes up residence at Tate St Ives. Expect more drawing on the wall, this time with pastel colours and decorative motifs, as van der Stokker explores heartwarming themes in a style she calls “nonshouting feminism”.