Category Archives: drawing

Review: Modern Times – Responding to Chaos

Exhibition: Modern Times, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, until June 13 2010

Somewhere between art and architecture sits a drawing by minimalist sculptor Fred Sandbeck. His pencil and chalk plan for a Zurich gallery construction hovers in mid air, reminding us of the Utopian potential of pictorial space.

The architectural role of this work would have come as no surprise to El Lissitzky. In the 1920s the Russian artist developed a mysterious term for such constructions of art. He called it Proun.

Given that eight lithographs by the inventor of Proun find their way into this show, the concept appears central to the fantastic selection of drawings here. If so, it is also central to the history of 20th century art proposed by curator Lutz Becker.

If that story begins with Lissitzky and Suprematism, it ends here with the minimalism of Sol Lewitt. By numbering the blocks in his Working Drawing (1996) he produces a piece of deadpan technical drawing, like a terse fullstop on all the preceeding “isms”.

The artist’s line, once a vehicle for representation and then abstract expression, now becomes fully realised as a means for drafting perfect structures in the mind’s eye.

Indeed, abstract expressionism here seems almost a folly. Willem De Kooning’s smudges, Franz Kline’s daubs and Robert Motherwell’s painterly blobs could be a vain rebellion against the spatial powers of the line.

But drawing too can represent chaos, rather than clarity. Night Celebration III by Mark Tobey is an even, methodical scribble which spreads across the surface of a sheet of card like cigarette smoke at a riotous party.

However, the lasting impression from this show is that less equals more. The works are largely monochrome. There are few figurative reference points. For every feat of excess there is a study in restraint.

You come away feeling that in art so much can be achieved with the simplest means. A case in point is Norman McClaren film Horizontal Lines, shown alongside moving image works by Fernand Léger, Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling.

The horizontal lines rise, fall and proliferate as if set in motion by an algorithm, but this is no dry exercise in geometry. The film is also a perfect narrative. It is high drama. Excitement runs thoughout this show like lead through a pencil.

Written for Culture24.

Review: From Sickert to Gertler – Modern British Art from Boxted House

Exhibition: From Sickert to Gertler – Modern British Art from Boxted House, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, until September 12 2010

Long before Brit Art, there was British Art. In the early 20th century this was typified by the painterly, figurative work of a group centred around Camden in London.

Compared with contemporaries in Paris, the Camden Town Group were retrospective technicians. The art can seem as modest and matter-of-fact as that name.

The System, painted in 1924-5 by Walter Sickert, is a case in point. As a portrait of a luckless character type with finely balanced colours, it is impressive. But there are no flights of abstraction. You wouldn’t guess the first Surrealist manifesto had just been published.

Robert Bevan was another member of the Group and its his work which dominates this show. After experiments with fauvism and pointillism, his style settles into an angular yet sedate form of post-impressionism, with the emphasis on landscapes.

In the years before and after the First World War, Bevan and his wife, Stanislawa de Karlowska, were central figures in the London art scene. It was their son, Bobby, together with his wife Natalie, who collected most of the works on display here.

Their house was a showcase for paintings by Sickert, Bevan and Karlowska, along with Mark Gertler, Harold Gilman, Charles Ginner, Cedric Morris and John Nash. Most of these talents were also friends in one way or another.

The web of relationships between the artworks and artists in this show is dense. To complicate matters further, Bobby built up an eclectic range of works on paper, in which Goya, Cezanne and Toulouse-Lautrec sit more or less side by side. Natalie, meanwhile, had an exhibition of her own ceramics at the Anthony d’Offay gallery.

But it is their family home of Boxted House in Essex which draws together all these guests, possessions and passions. The artwork here is displayed room by room, so the results are no less disordered than a perusal of anyone else’s place of residence.

In his lifetime, Bevan only sold one painting to a public gallery. Brighton Art Gallery bought The Cab Yard, Night in 1913. It was a favourite subject, but horse drawn cabs would soon be replaced by cars. In Italy, this would spawn Futurism. Here we did not exactly embrace modernity.

Written for Culture24.

Preview: Helen Frik – Difficult

Helen Frik, Happiness With Less visits The Hard Worker. Courtesy the artist and SNS REAAL Fonds. Photo © Matthijs van Roon

Exhibition: Helen Frik – Difficult, Chapter, Cardiff, until May 9 2010

Most art shows demand just time and attention. This one put out an urgent appeal for homemade soft toys. Along with the usual mental graft, it required considerable craft.

Many snips and stitches later, these objects can be enjoyed with childlike wonder. Helen Frik has amassed a sea of them, so you can marvel at all the hard work they represent.

The exhibition is, after all, called Difficult, which is something contemporary art has a reputation for being. Perhaps it is even harder to make than to enjoy.

A nearby sound installation presents you with a challenging stream of noise, but now and then it becomes music. Again, the process counts for as much as the pleasure.

This is Frik’s first solo show in a UK public institution. It deals, on the face of it, with everyday travails and the obstacles we all face and which give life its meaning.

But perhaps such difficulty also gives meaning to art. The installations and drawings on display here can at times resist interpretation, and therein lies their charge.

Written for Culture24.

Review: Artes Mundi 4 at National Museum Cardiff

Photographic work by Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev

Exhibition: Artes Mundi 4: Wales International Visual Art Exhibition and Prize, National Museum Cardiff, until June 6 2010

Olga Chernysheva’s photos of a natural history museum in Moscow can now, by a strange quirk of fate, be seen in a natural history museum in Wales. But the scenes captured by the Russian artist are a world away from those encountered by visitors to National Museum Cardiff.

The Welsh museum and gallery is a vibrant, welcoming, and forward-looking venue. While Muscovites can apparently expect empty lobbies, cluttered displays and sleepy attendants.

Chernysheva’s scenes are static, monochrome and quietly amusing. Like all the shortlisted artists in the fourth Artes Mundi prize, she reminds us that the world has four corners, rather than one, and art can come from any of them.

Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev, from Kyrgyzstan, bring to light another alien environment: the barren trails which criss-cross their little known homeland to the West of China and the North of Afghanistan, otherwise known as the Silk Road.

Their photographic subjects include a clothes stall, which makes Romford market look like Selfridges, and a one-room hotel shack with a horse parked in the cab rank. A multi-channel film shows local scrap metal dealers driving groaning trucks back and forth along the rocky roads in a relentless quest to make a living.

International trade is also given attention by Fernando Bryce, with a focus on the very origins of global capitalism. The Peruvian artist is technically impressive, taking news articles and advertising materials from the turn of the 20th century and reworking them as illustrated pages from a comic book history of the world.

His painstaking images and texts fill a sizeable gallery and render long-past events as fresh as his ubiquitous Indian ink, which also gives his grand narrative a fictional look and feel. Our current state of affairs seems all at once precarious, or at least arbitrary.

Yael Bartana, Ergin Çavusoglu, Chen Chieh-jen and Adrian Paci are the four other artists in the show. So perspectives come from Israel, Bulgaria, Taiwan and Albania respectively.

Such work from outside Britain and the US may not have the panache of, say, a cast aluminium lobster by Jeff Koons, but its concerns may be more pressing. It demands no less of your attention.

Written for Culture24.

Feature: Artes Mundi Prize at National Museum Cardiff

A Moscow museum, photographed by shortlisted artist Olga Chernysheva

The UK’s biggest art prize, Artes Mundi, is vying to become the most talked about. At £40,000 it is worth twice as much as the Turner, which should provide twice as much scope for controversy.

While installing work by shortlisted artists at National Museum Cardiff, the organisers make clear their intent. “We’ve taken down a Madonna and Child from the 1600s and put in an LCD screen – we are very pleased with that,” says Director Tessa Jackson.

It now shows the work of film maker, photographer and painter Olga Chernysheva, one of eight international artists contending for the prize. Chernysheva is from Russia, her competition from Peru, Israel, Albania, Bulgaria, Taiwan and Kyrgyzstan.

Jackson points to this worldwide range as the main difference between the fourth Artes Mundi and the annual hoopla of the Turner award. “The Turner prize is very focused because it’s British. It’s every year. It’s a constant search,” she says.

Artes Mundi, by contrast, is held every two years, and the shortlist is chosen by a team of curators who sit apart from the judging panel, which she calls a “different architecture”.

“Each Artes Mundi will set up a different discussion and we have cultural commonalities and cultural differences,” she says of the Turner comparisons. “But we do quite a lot of work, as they do, around familiarising people with contemporary art.”

Indeed, during eight years Artes Mundi has brought 32 international artists to Cardiff. The 2008 show broke records with 70,000 visitors. Last year’s Turner Prize, although a paid exhibition, drew only 7,000 more to Tate Britain.

To convert that interest into lively nationwide debate, Artes Mundi are pulling out the stops in terms of visitor engagement and interactive technology.

Head of Administration Carl Grainger is clearly excited about the virtual comments board. “The idea is you can write or type comments on the exhibition,” he explains. “It appears on the LCD screen in the reception area and selected comments get transferred to our blog. I have never seen anything else quite like that.”

Each proudly wears a t-shirt proclaiming, in English and Welsh, “I’ve met the artists, ask me.” Artes Mundi education co-ordinator Ffion Rhys corroborates this fact.

“The guides all have met the artists, so they all know them first hand,” she declares. “They have all researched a lot of their past work, not just the work included here, and will be able to tell the audience more about other pieces they might have done.”

Live Guide Ruth McLees was clearly enthused by her encounter with the finalists.

“It was amazing speaking to someone, rather than reading about it, and also being able to ask background questions and meet people as a person rather than just an artist,” she says. “They are just a person like us. And they have all these experiences as people which feed into the work.”

Given the geographical range of artists included in the show, the viewer might need these points of reference. Curators Viktor Misiano, from Russia, and Levent Çalikoglu, from Turkey, have chosen an uncompromisingly serious selection in which film and photography predominate.

The results will make demands on your time and offer unfamiliar viewpoints from across the globe. There are no quick hits like those you might find at Brit Art’s biggest prize.

But popularism has never been the only benchmark of success, as Lucy Stout, Head of Development at Artes Mundi, points out: “Of course we all know that some people loathe something so much other people have to see if they loathe it as well,” she concedes. “It’s all good. It’s all talk.”

So whether or not you think the best art should deal with international politics, head for Cardiff and have your say.

Written for Culture24.

Review: Richard Hamilton – Modern Moral Matters

Richard Hamilton, Swingeing London 67 (f) (1968-69). Screenprint on canvas, acrylic and collage. © 2010 Richard Hamilton

Exhibition: Richard Hamilton – Modern Moral Matters, Serpentine Gallery, London, until April 25 2010

More than 50 years since Pop Art began, it is a 1960s aphorism which best explains the varying effects in this show. Marshall McLuhan may have coined the phrase, but it is Richard Hamilton who really demonstrates the adage that “the medium is the message.”

In his Swingeing London series, he blows up and recreates a newspaper photo until it becomes an icon. Ten versions fill one of the Serpentine’s galleries and the repetition is Warholian, but no two are executed in the same way.

Across the series, Hamilton paints with oils, acrylic, watercolour and gouache. He draws with pencil and pastels. He screen-prints, etches, photo-engraves, die-stamps, embosses and prints using aquatint. He makes stencils and collage.

So in at least ten different ways we see a transfiguration of the arrest of Mick Jagger and Hamilton’s friend Robert Fraser into art. Press cuttings make up a nearby Swingeing London poster and evoke the labyrinthine narrative of the event.

Elsewhere he borrows the conventions of the triptych to sanctify three protagonists in the Northern Irish conflict.

Central to this piece is The Citizen, in which a long-haired hunger striker appears both Christ-like and counter-cultural. He too is a painter, as can be seen from the walls of his cell and his well-documented medium is excrement.

Hamilton also does installation. His chilling Treatment Room contains a hospital bed, sink with disinfectant, a reinforced glass window and an environmental control panel.

In lieu of a doctor, a TV shows a reel of interviews with Margaret Thatcher. This time the medium interrogates Thatcherism even as the former Tory leader seems to be treating the viewer.

Recent work by Hamilton, now in his late 80s, takes the form of digital printing onto canvas. These are the most direct works in a highly political show.

Each makes a simple point: Israel is crushing Palestine; in its coverage of the Gulf war, the media has blood on its hands; and Tony Blair fancied himself as a bit of a gunslinger.

But perhaps the real message is around the all-pervasiveness of virtual realities and advertising techniques in the visual realm. The canvas is all but invisible behind the full bleed image.

Written for Culture24.

Review: Here and Now at University of Brighton

Exhibition: Here and Now – 2nd Year Fine Art BA (Hons), University of Brighton, until February 23 2010

It will typically take an art student three years to hone their technique, but to give a piece a great title can be the work of seconds.

Here and Now is a group show by second year students at Brighton University. And if one painting by Peter Barwick is anything to go by, studying here is a blast.

I Totally Just Painted This is a large scale oil on canvas work featuring cartoony square dogs. The joy of using bright colours is emphasised by the ring of those five words on the plaque.

Another painting opposite is named with equal boldness. I Loved You may not have as much attitude, but the neon Chinatown landscape by Elisha Enfield is as lush as a film by Wong Kar-wai.

A good title can open up a work to interpretation. You Can Never Be Too Sure by Vicky Pattemore is a small but resonant ink drawing of a rib cage suspended behind a finely wrought birdcage.

Elsewhere, a title expands on an idea. A row of tiny sculpted washing machines in shades of off white and dyed pink is arresting and amusing to a point, which Charisia Chatzitsoli goes beyond with a single word: Shrunk.

Not all works need the convention of a name. 10 ft up on the gallery wall is a brass emergency bell. A steel and glass staircase leads to it, so fragile that Sarah Ross’s work will make you wince before you’ve even glanced at the plaque.

Caroline Bugby is another student who lets her piece do the talking. A waxy Ordnance Survey map hangs like a dishcloth from a jauntily angled DIY store hook. The result is cheery. If she had called it I Totally Just Sculpted This, the effect would be the same.

Meanwhile Lucinda Turner-Brown has had as much fun as anyone here. In an apparent tribute to Joseph Beuys she has built a twin tower of packets of Asda Smart Price lard. The piece is called, Life. Well, you can’t fault that for ambition.

Preview: Ian Breakwell – The Elusive State of Happiness

Ian Breakwell, Photo Text Sequence, (1972). © the artist's estate.

Exhibition: Ian Breakwell – The Elusive State of Happiness, QUAD Gallery, Derby, February 13 – April 18 2010

Ian Breakwell led a well-recorded life. Between the 1960s and his death in 2005 he captured many of its details in a largely unpublished visual diary.

Some is typed, some handwritten. There are drawings, photos and collages. It is a masterwork which slowly evolves over the decades. Every page is a finished piece.

Most artists would have found time for little else, but Breakwell was prolific. The organisers of his first major retrospective will have had a lot of work to choose from.

“He was an incredible, diverse artist,” says Curator Louise Clements, “We are excited with the show and to be able to offer audiences a full exploration of his life’s work, from diaries, audioworks, moving image, expanded-cinema to text, drawings and photo-collage.”

Large-scale works on show include the 32-part Estate, the 27-part Walserings, plus the artist’s last important work, BC/AD, dealing with his fatal battle with cancer.

Breakwell was born in Derby and studied at Derby College of Art. He spent much of his working life in London and his work is now to be found in the Tate, the V&A and New York’s MoMA.

International renown came from an ability to tease out the extraordinary from the ordinary. If that is not a good reason for keeping a diary, what is?

Written for Culture24.

Preview: Richard Grayson at De La Warr Pavilion

Video Still from The Magpie Index. © Richard Grayson/Locus +.

Exhibition: Richard Grayson – An Exhibition, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea, until March 14 2010

The show is simply called An Exhibition, but music and words feature as heavily as visual art in this five-year retrospective of works by Richard Grayson.

A Country & Western band, from Australia, play tunes that occasionally borrow from the score of Handel’s Messiah. Hay bales are provided to sit on.

Another gallery, decked out like a chapel, shows footage of a 26-piece choir who sing about the end of the world. Their lyrics are adapted from a cultish religious website.

Then there is Roy Harper, the English singer-songwriter, who appears on video as a  talking head in The Magpie Index.

This new commission looks at the philosophies and attitudes that have ensured Harper remains outside the mainstream, where you’ll also find aussie C&W and apocalyptical cults.

Grayson is fascinated by the narratives and texts used to stake out these positions. The show includes several works on paper which take blogs, star charts and Internet-based prophecies as a starting point.

Indeed the web is the place where outsiders can remake the world using language and image. Various sites theorise about the location of the tomb of Jesus Christ. Grayson downloads the results and draws pictures from the jpegs.

He takes wayward voices seriously or at least plays with the possibility of doing so.

Written for Culture24.

Preview: Modern Times at Kettle's Yard

Franciszka Themerson, Gustav Klucis. www.kettlesyard.co.uk

Modern Times – Responding to Chaos, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, until March 14 2010

Attempts to build a world order invariably result in chaos. Some of the outcomes can be seen at a new exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge.

Modern Times: Responding to Chaos is the first of a series of shows in which creative protagonists of the 20th and 21st century have been asked to trace a personal journey through recent history.

First up is film-maker and painter Lutz Becker, whose personal responses to chaos are classic documentaries. Art in Revolution (1971) looks at Russian art in the early days of Communism, Swastika (1973) looks at the rise of Nazism in Germany, and Vita Futurista (1987) studies the far right Futurist movement in Italy.

So it’s no surprise that Becker’s curatorial interests take in many artist-made films of the last hundred years. The show includes moving image pieces by Viking Eggeling, Hans Richter, Fernand Léger and even Kazimir Malevich.

But latter-day chaos has also caused a rupture in the most longstanding of art forms, drawing. As film captured slices of reality, artists used the hand-drawn line to pit abstraction against figuration and turn geometry against spontaneous gesture.

Malevich and Eggeling reappear on paper, along with Boccioni, Mondrian, Grosz, Klee, Pollock, de Kooning, Giacometti, Bourgeois, Beuys, Serra, Judd and Twombly.

But what have these exponents of Futurism, Constructvism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Conceptualism left us with? More chaos, and the 21st century awaits a few comparable responses.

Written for Culture24.