Category Archives: Figurative painting

Weiwei-isms by Ai Weiwei


Books come in all shapes and sizes, but perhaps the most potent format is both small and black. The collected quotes of Ai Weiwei should have come in nothing less.

Editor Larry Warsh has trawled through some 74 interviews with the Chinese artist to bring readers in the West a meditation on his life and situation in soundbites.

Then again, his countrymen have always liked to keep things short and snappy. Ai tells us that the quotations of Chairman Mao were rarely more than a tweet-length.

Admittedly, China’s pictographic use of Twitter allows them 140 words rather than 140 characters, but still. Confucius can be quoted just four words at a time, says Ai.

Since these are verbal epithets, Weiwei-isms contains a degree of repetition and odd moments of banality. A modern day Shakespeare, “might be writing on Twitter.” Really!?

But if that obvious statement were to come true, the bard could not do better than this from Ai’s twitter feed (@aiww): “The world is a sphere, there is no East or West.”

The ultimate power of this book lies not in the words, however, but in the free-wheeling attitude they represent in one of the most restrictive societies on the planet.

“Expressing oneself is like a drug. I’m so addicted to it,” says Ai, who has indeed found the most dangerous and least legal narcotic in China.

As has been much publicised, in 2011 he was busted and spent 81 days behind bars. “During the days in detention I thought most about the moon,” he says, incorrigibly.

Ai’s belief in free speech makes interview-giving an important part of his role in the art world. Along with the social media usage, one wants to call it a practice, but that word sounds too academic.

Which this tweet certainly isn’t: “Overturning police cars is a super-intense workout. It’s probably the only sport I enjoy.” This allies him with rebel artists Voina in Russia, who did just that.

Artists in the West have always taken risks, be that earning the displeasure of the church, rejection by the Paris Salon or simply the derision of the gallery going public.

But on the whole making art is a legitimate enough business. Ai meanwhile is risking his neck and this gives his art another dimension. Call it a sort of realism.

Despite our relative freedoms, his little black book really is a manifesto. Ai may be kicking against the pricks, but he makes it look easy, irrestistible, even enjoyable. So join him.

Weiwei-isms (pp125) is edited by Larry Warsh and published by Princeton University Press. Available in all good bookshops, and this bad one.

David Dawson, Mirror in Studio (2004)

Like many a good artist’s studio, that of Lucian Freud required a mirror. And when David Dawson was in the studio it would have become a rich metaphor.

Freud‘s longterm assistant was also a painter. The master would also paint Dawson. And Dawson in turn made portraits of his employer – photographic, like the one here.

But in this shot, Freud is conspicuous by his absence in the room, then conspicuous again by his absence in the mirror. The brushes and the marks on his wall stand in.

It almost goes without saying that Freud is all the more present for being invisible. Just as he seems ubiquitous ever since he passed away last Summer.

Dawson is also absent, bur only up to a point. This is no baroque conceit like Las Meninas in which the artist includes his own mirror image in the composition.

Instead he gives the impression of this being an objective view of both ends of an empty studio. And in its way, that too is a bit of trickery.

It is a trick which captures the sad reality of this space on a top floor in Holland Park  Freud can no longer be here. Dawson, after 20 years service, has no reason to return.

David Dawson: Working with Lucian Freud can be seen at Pallant House Gallery until 20 May 2012. See gallery website for times, etc. Click here to watch a video interview with Dawson

Antony Gormley/Tomoko Takahashi/Alice Neel/Ed Pien/Jorge Santos/Simon Yuill

Recent reviews and previews written for Culture24. Check ’em out:

Alice Neel, Frank O’Hara No.2 (1960)

Frank O’Hara, No. 2 1960, Oil on canvas, 96.5 x 61 cm, Estate of Alice Neel

The face of Frank O’Hara in this portrait by Alice Neel is in its way shocking. With his bad teeth, sharp nose and wild eyes the New York poet appears ugly at first, even repellent.

There is no composure in this likeness and his expression is raw. But with all its imperfections, his face is also vulnerable. It is this which makes it difficult to look at, which makes it burdensome.

For all the laughter, O’Hara appears unguarded here and we cannot turn away from such nudity. It must have been a face like this which philosopher Emmanuel Levinas had in mind when he spoke about the concept as follows: “The relation to the face is a relation to the absolutely weak, to what is absolutely exposed, naked and destitute.”

Levinas also said the face was not to be confused with a portrait, but there are surely portraits and portraits. Neel does not immortalise her subjects, indeed quite the opposite. If anyone could prise away the mask and put us face to face with another human being, she could.

Elsewhere it has been written that this portrait shows something bordering on dislike, which can coexist with pity; read a review by Adrian Searle in the Guardian here. Neel is the subject of a major show at Whitechapel at the moment and there is a review by Robin Blake in the FT, here, and one by Laura McClean-Ferris in The Independent here.

Alice Neel – Painted Truths is currently at Whitechapel Gallery until September 17.

Preview: Mitch Griffiths at Halcyon Gallery

Actor Ray Winstone given permanence by the brush of Mitch Griffiths

Exhibition: Mitch Griffiths – The Promised Land, Halcyon Gallery, London, until May 31 2010

It has been said that being unfashionable is a sure way to get in fashion. If that be the case, Mitch Griffiths might soon come into ironic vogue in the same way as socks and sandals are now in some circles acceptable.

Griffiths paints large scale portraits in the style of the old masters but with radically updated themes. In place of religion and royalty, his new show at Halcyon Gallery takes on celebrity, consumerism and British nationalism.

The self-taught artist has gone on record with the following claim: “Once you paint a MacDonald’s burger in oil paint, it becomes important and immortal. It’s a permanent mark of the disposable.”

In the latest shows, two of the immortals who gaze out from the canvas are actors Ray Winston and his daughter Lois. Both are wrapped in Union Jacks and wear the look of battle-weary heroes.

Other paintings feature plastic surgeons, paparazzi and a suicidal Tesco customer. All of the above are high impact, technically skilled works. Only you feel they might be a little short on ambiguity.

The 25 paintings on show have already sold and Griffiths will be looking ahead to the next big exhibition. Iconostasis in 2011 will be a “blockbuster” according to Halcyon Gallery president Paul Green, and it may even be flavour of the month…in theory.

Written for Culture24.

Review: Tony Bevan goes large with painting installation at De La Warr Pavilion

Exhibition: Tony Bevan, New painting installation, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, until June 13 2010

Monumental painting can be a serious business. It brings to mind thickly laid on paint with an often spiritual dimension laid on just as thick. Tony Bevan’s installation at De La Warr Pavilion, on the other hand, is of the order of a cosmic joke.

His centrepiece may depict a religious figurehead. But Back of Buddha’s Head crops its subject so tight, we focus on his tonsured baldness. And just who are we to be looking down on the supreme enlightened one anyhow?

In fact, Bevan has drawn inspiration from a visit to China, where vast statue the Great Buddha of Leshan is often approached by a hilltop hike. That explains the detail in his almost-as-vast graphic painting, with its row upon row of orange curls.

Self Portrait After Messerschmidt is equally bold and equally light in tone. Bevan paints himself an unflattering, low viewpoint. The skin on his neck is strained, his nostrils are cavernous and his ears jut into space.

Once again the work is part-based on statuary. Franz Xaver Messerschmidt was an 18th century sculptor with a radical line in extreme, and comic, facial expressions.

The third work, Head Horizon, is as sketchy and dynamic as a high-calibre piece of comic book art. The foreshortened face is an intense mask of concentration. Black vectors criss-cross the unidentified cranium.

Charcoal is used, along with paint, leaving abrasive streaks behind as a visceral reminder of the physicality of mark-making. Long brushstrokes and flecks of acrylic give an impression of speed. But a gloss to the finish puts the whole arrangement in stasis.

Similar media are used throughout the installation. The artist’s self portrait is deep red while his Buddha glistens with bright orange. Most of these spacious canvases are left unpainted.

The paintings are minimal yet complete. Just as they manage to be poppy, painterly, expressionistic, and jaunty, all at the same time. That is such a tough juggling act, it is a wonder Bevan can keep that sense of humour.

Written for Culture24.