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

Zara Wood, Creating Characters (2012)

For anyone who likes their girls with a sublimated death drive, please find above chain smoker Nicole, one of ten new characters by artist and illustrator Zara Wood.

That‘s artist and illustrator. And it could be argued that distinctions between the two roles come down to a position with regards to the written word.

Woods characters cry out for an author. Even swinging from their clipboards in the window of Super + Super, they appear to interact. Stories could well emerge.

But this mini show in the midst of the Brighton festival has to some degree put the cart before the horse. They are illustrations for stories not yet written.

And whereas illustrations put narratives first, most contemporary art puts the word, whether written yet or not, second. Text follows on the heels of oblique art.

Such speculation about chickens and eggs may not get us anywhere. After all for most of history, so called fine artists were illustrating the greatest story ever told.

And we don’t even know whether stories or visions came first in the prehistoric art found in and around the Pyrenees. Were these illustrations too?

It is tempting to bring this debate back to material conditions. Nicole was drawn up in an illustrator’s studio and hangs in the window of a Brightonian creative hub.

And she has called them characters, rather than portraits, which is hardly surprising since they include an unlikely sausage dog and a placard waving penguin.

Okay, so Wood’s show has occasioned 200 tendentious words on this art blog, it would have been better to write some fiction about Nicole. Anyone?

Nicole and friends can be found in the window of Super + Super in Brighton, 7 Kings Road, until June 4.

Emma Stibbon: StadtLandschaften at The University of Brighton Gallery

The GDR did not exist. So reads the graffiti which greets visitors to StadtLandschaften, a new show by Emma Stibbon. This scrawl appears in the foreground of an ink drawing which, like much of the artist’s work, shows the brick and mortar evidence that in fact the GDR did exist. But the Soviet era building beyond the wall drips with various shades of grey. It does indeed look as if you could wash away the entire history of a nation.

Nearby are a row of memorials in watery ink. The passing of time has made a joke of the supposed permanence of stone. A plinth sits empty and bears shrapnel scars. A statue for the fallen of WWII floats away from the earth; the soldier peers from behind the wintry branches of an overgrown tree.

German-born Stibbon has found a surprising degree of poetry in these recent ruins. They are after all only two decades old. Her black and white studies are as atmospheric as faded newsprint, and just as realistic. It’s a pre-digital look which lends both weight and mass to her subject matter.

Many of the works on display have been etched on blackboards using chalk. Schlossplatz is a brooding epic in which a dark palace presides over some ruined bunkers. Karl Marx Allee is a brilliantly drafted aerial shot of a major boulevard which, as we are informed, led pointedly East.

The artist’s white lines are so fine and her medium so dusty that you get a sense that a single puff of air could blow both landscapes off the map. Elsewhere she depicts a rainy runway at Tempelhof airport. The chalk is smudged and looks like the scene could dissolve.

In room two of the exhibition, Stibbon takes us further afield to Antarctica. Most of these scenes are just as transient. Her Whaling Station on Deception Island is in collapse. A watercolour called Drift Ice is a scene whitening into non-existence.

Fixed on the wall is a photo of the artist. She sits on a plastic chair on the deck of a boat somewhere in the freezing ocean, sketching. Emma Stibbon exists, but had there been graffiti it might suggest otherwise.

Made in Brighton at Ink_D

Published on Culture 24

Exhibition: Made in Brighton, Ink_D Gallery, Brighton, until October 4 2009

For a small gallery, this is a big group show. Seventeen artists have been squeezed onto the wall of Ink_D in the North Laine. All are Brighton based and much of the work is Brighton inspired. So just how much talent can one seaside town accommodate? Each has been given 30 square cm to demonstrate what they can do.

James Cauty, who once set fire to £1 million of profits from his band KLF, is still causing controversy, just on a smaller scale.

Stamps Are So Gay is a page of perforated covers showing two cowboys engaged in a lewd act. As with a photo stand from the pier, there are oval holes where the faces should be, and a young straight couple peers through.

Imbue has also made a statement. Taking cues from the logo of Brighton and Hove City Council, he has made an emblem which looks more like DisneyLand. Perhaps life here is too much fun.

Another comment on the city’s reputation for hedonism comes from satirical cartoonists Modern Toss. Come To Brighton shows a couple of daytrippers on the train, taking a stroll, dancing and finally throwing up into a dustbin.

Andy Doig designed the neon sign above the gallery door and his medium is light. He has responded well to the brief with a fairground bulb mounted on a section of painted wood from a pier.

A gaudy cable joins it to the mains. Ride Relic is a simple, well-executed slice of city life.

Another sculpture provides another highlight. Sean Madden has taken inspiration from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock to produce a cut-throat razor with the words “I Love You” engraved in the blade.

It is a brilliant evocation of both old style gangsterism and also the dark side of a dirty weekend.

There are 25 pieces by every artist and all the works cost just £75. Whether you’re coming to Brighton for the day or you’ve lived here all your life, it would be hard to find a better souvenir.

Darwin at The Fitzwilliam Museum

Published on Culture 24

Endless Forms: Darwin – Natural Science and the Visual Arts, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until October 4 2009

An 1838 print from The Penny Magazine shows us Jenny, sitting on a chair, wearing children’s clothes, holding a ball. It’s remarkable, because this little lady was a captive Orangutan. Jenny was one of the first apes to appear in London, dead or alive.

It was the same year Charles Darwin first sketched his famous evolutionary tree in a notebook and added the words, “I think.” Apes weren’t only a bit like children – they were also our ancestors. It was an imaginative leap that would compound the public’s fascination for monkeykind.

There was, of course, some horror. Our new relatives were traditionally viewed as clever but sadistic animals. The Cat’s Paw, by Sir Edwin Landseer, depicts a monkey enlisting an unlucky cat to extract chestnuts from a fire.

But looking more closely, artists soon picked up on more innocent qualities. An 1852 watercolour by Joseph Wolf shows a young chimpanzee who could almost be one of the family. Darwin must have been impressed, since he later employed Wolf to help him prove that some simians actually smile.

This is just a fraction of what can be gathered at a brilliant exhibition to celebrate 200 years since the birth of Darwin. It clearly demonstrates that geology, paleontology, natural selection and anthropology have inspired a good share of 19th and early 20th century art, and it documents the crucial role illustrators and artists played in the development of evolutionary theory.

There are a smattering of masterpieces on display, including Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, by Degas. This bronze sculpture caused uproar at the time, when critics compared the subject to an animal. They may have been missing the point, because Darwin’s theories on our kinship with beasts were a direct influence.

Other big names include Turner, Cézanne and Monet, but of equal prominence here are some lesser-known figures who would barely register in a history of art. John Gould, who was both ornithologist and illustrator, accompanied Darwin on his voyage to the Galapagos Islands, and was the first to recognise the differing species of Finch and Mockingbird.

It was to prove a vital discovery to science and, ultimately, of no less importance to art.

A temporary museum in Hove

Published on Culture 24

Small Wonders: A Museum of Imagination by Zara Wood, Boxbird Gallery, Hove, until July 12 2009

Despite recent illustration work for Top Shop and Stussy, a new solo show by Zara Wood travels a long way from the catwalk, taking you instead to a dusty world of antique display cases, animals which may be stuffed and anthropological curiosities.

The collection of nearly 40 pieces is numbered similarly to exhibits in a museum and if the sequence doesn’t quite tell a story, it does build a narrative effect as familiar motifs repeat themselves. There’s a hoard of pirates, a bevy of sad-eyed girls and a parliament of owls.

This works so well that No.25, The Invisible Girl with Owl Portrait, need only supply you with a tiny picture of the ubiquitous bird. The frame is otherwise empty for you to conjure the female figure yourself.

There are many more light touches, such as the wave made from rolled paper in The Storm Subsided, which threatens to overwhelm a small boat containing another owl, while a picture-book moon scowls down from the backboard.

Here, as elsewhere, Wood fills a cabinet with 3D scenery to create what she calls a diorama. She says her show is inspired by the expeditions that helped fill the Pitts Rivers Museum in Oxford and the Museum of Natural History in New York. These miniature stage sets capture that best.

It’s a short voyage round the Boxbird Gallery, but it does offer the chance to meet a full-size stag. Charcoal lines and packing cardboard are both used for Stag with Friend. This tour de force is as large as most of the other work is small, yet still feels like an element of scenery.

The beast’s friend perches on an antler, a strange bird-child. “I’m an only child, so I had lots of early relationships with pets and animals, and they are always quite close to my work,” says Wood. There’s a sense of make believe to this show which is infectious.