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

Eduardo Terrazas, Possibilities of a Structure: Cosmos 1.1.13’, (1976-2015)


Abstract and irregular it might be, but this geometric artwork is as comforting as a picnic blanket. On first glance at the reproduction, you may not realise why. But get closer…

This sharp, monochrome composition, which promises so little on screen, is in fact rendered in a dense yarn weave of yarn. Black/grey/white may be tonally cool, but the medium is warm.

But to call it a pattern, would be misleading. Patterns tend towards symmetry and Terrazas tends to resist the lure of simple elements which balance one another.

Yarn is glued to a waxed board in a technique borrowed from the indigenous Huichol people of the West of Central Mexico. It makes the challenging design appear organic, inevitable.

Although you will want to, you need not touch the surface to appreciate the intensity delivered by thousands of woollen strands pulling at the centre of this fragmented target from all directions.

The result is almost too much to get your head around. Like a piece of improvised music, Terrazas gives us just enough order to keep us on the room, just enough disorder to keep us on our toes.

It reflects this Mexican artist’varied background in architecture, in graphic design and in museology. But surely none of these disciplines offer the freedom of contemporary art.

Terrazas offers the freedom of the blank surface with the satisfaction of a provisional structure in which everything locks into place. Like the elements of a building or a logo.

Incidentally, he co-created the design for the Olympic Games of Mexico 68. This too has echoes of native central-American craft. You could say it reverberates, as does each work in the current show.

Eduardo Terrazas can be seen at Timothy Taylor, London, until October 3 2015.

Interview: Jasmine Surreal

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Just minutes into our interview at a gallery in Bermondsey, 30-something Jasmine Surreal pulls a toy cat from her bag and begins ventriloquizing, in a cat voice, for my benefit.

“With my painting, I do nice, fantasy, imaginative things, because I’m so beautiful and glamorous like Zsa Zsa Gabor,” says Surreal, lost for a moment in high-voiced character.

It is one of the stranger responses I’ve had from an artist and it is true. The painter has a pair of cats with whom she makes most of her work, holding the brushes like Sooty or Sweep. This takes a while to sink in, while it is impossible not to begin reassessing my interview subject’s sanity.

Fortunately she seems fully aware of the eccentricity of her approach, with a ready sense of humour that saves our encounter from becoming a psychiatric case study.

Besides, Surreal is aligned with the Stuckist movement, the international support group for artists who make figurative work on canvas. They are not averse to being difficult, wayward and unconcerned with public image.

“I’m obsessed by cats,” admits the artist. “I basically want to be reincarnated as one.” And she says this in her real voice, a jaunty scouse accent. “I have funny cat crushes,” she adds. “I get obsessed with a certain type and I download loads of pictures of them and I avidly stalk them on Twitter.”

This is borne out as we walk round her show at Trispace Gallery in Bermondsey. Fur and whiskers are picked out in great detail. Their owners appear in a range of bizarre scenes. Surreal’s love for these household pets might seem childish if it wasn’t so amusing.

“I like kids because they’re not affected by the way you should behave in society,” the artist tells me. Indeed, it’s a reason why she held her Private View on a family-friendly Saturday afternoon.

“In some ways I’m like that. I’ve never grown up and I never would because being grown up is painful.” This could be at least part of the reason for an angry portrait of her mother, painted naturally by one of her cats.

“I do have a cute side,” she adds, “and it’s not going to be trampled out because society isn’t cute.” Instead of “grey” social comment, Surreal offers a camp alternative: “People say, ‘you’re a woman; how can you be camp?’”. At which point she assumes an even more flamboyant persona: “It’s very easy, darling, if you want to be.”

The artist also does an amusing take-off of one of her more conceptual peers and pretends to swear on oath that she rarely attends contemporary art shows. It should come as no surprise that in a past life Surreal was an actress and a model. A career highlight came when playing a nude statue which comes to life in 2006 Brit flick Fated.

While still on Merseyside, she also worked as a journalist, writing for the comedy section of liistings magazine L-Scene. “I like a laugh me, you know. I’m a Northern bird,” she points out. No one could accuse Surreal of taking herself too seriously. And yet she has plenty of conviction when it comes to her art. She certainly suffers for it.

“I find a lot of artists to be very conventional,” she explains. “And they tend to find somebody like me, who’s unconventional to be, like…they either laugh at me or they’ll make fun of me or they’ll make disparaging comments about me, whereas that incites me to do more and be more weird.”

Surreal is clear about her antipathy to most modern art and even goes so far as to worry it might “poison my imagination”. In the absence of a real pet cat or two, the artist works direct from her mind’s eye.

“I’m very inspired by my own head. It’s because I don’t see things in reality or even in other paintings.” Although she makes an exception here for the likes of Bosch and Magritte and, indeed, Dorothea Tanning and MC Escher. She dismissed Salvador Dalí on account of his alleged treatment of animals (“he experimented on them.”)

But contrary to the suggestion of her assumed name (the artist was born Maddock), Jasmine Surreal insists: “I don’t just paint surreal things.” Her subjects are not wacky for the mere sake of it. “There’s a meaning. There’s symbolism. I don’t like art that is meaningless. I like art to mean something, even if it only means something to me,” she laughs.

So you might say this artist has well hidden depths, not unlike her all-time hero, Jerry Lewis. She says of the American comedian: “He’s a surreal genius, but everybody laughs at him. They just think that he pulls funny faces and stuff, but he’s much more than that.”

And then as if in danger of sounding too serious or even pretentious, Surreal adds, “also, I fancy him rotten.”

Jasmine Surreal was at Trispace Gallery, South London, between November 12 and 15 2014. Interview written for Culture24.

Jasmine Surreal, Toy Division (2014)

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Joy Division plus cats equals instant clickbait for this blog. But that was probably never the intention of a Stuckist painter so surreal she calls herself Jasmine Surreal.

In a colourful, cat-mad show at Trispace Gallery in South London, this work brings a sobriety to proceedings, a stony sense of the monumental, or indeed the memorial.

But there is nothing too, too serious about the content, which replaces Ian Curtis and the rest of the band with toy cats. An inscription reads ‘Ian Cat-is’ . . . sacrilege, no?

Well, yes and no. Surreal is a fan of felines and a fan of post punk bands from the North. The way she puts the two together is a loving tribute to both, painted ostensibly by her toy cat. Really.

It seems unaware, a work of the unconscious. And her predilection for puns (“Love will Bear us apart” reads the caption for a pair of teddies), only amplifies the artist’s dream logic.

But the remix is knowing. If you know the tragic story of Joy Division, you might appreciate the irony. And if you use the world wide web much, the juxtapositions won’t surprise you.

Surreal puts together several elements. The foreground nods to an iconic photo by Anton Corbijn. The decorations are an extension of a one of the greatest ever sleeve designs, by Peter Saville.

And the deity-like cat at the head of this composition is also based on a photo of Ian Curtis. I can’t find the shot in question, but there’s no mistaking the intensity.

In a world where boy band members can wear t-shirts proclaiming their affection for Manchester’s most dour, we are very ready for this statement of gothic cuddliness.

That’s not to mention the Lego men who cover She’s Lost Control, the Playmobile band who cover Transmission, the Joy Division oven gloves, nor the limited edition trainers.

Epilepsy, suicide, nihilistic lyrics and a band name with fascist echoes: contemporary culture thrives off what seems least marketable. Fluffy it may be, but Toy Division is hard evidence of this.

Jasmine Surreal can be seen at Trispace Gallery, London, until Saturday 15 2014.

Alan Magee, Return to glory (2014)

alan magee

Two disks grace the gallery. One sits on the floor. One hangs on the wall. Looking closer, their outer rims can be identified as hula hoops. But there will be no gyrating here today.

Both hoops have been measured up for a plasterboard inner, and worked over with filler to produce an artwork. So that carpentry and plastering skills more in evidence than chiselling or moulding.

So the productive status of Return to glory is ambiguous. Is it really a work, resulting in a useful end product? Or is it a piece of menial labour? Possibly, only the market decides.

Irish artist Magee is much concerned with these distinctions and points me in the direction of Hannah Arendt for a discussion of work, labour and action.

Returning to the source of distinctions like this, Arendt recalls Aristotle. The Greek would have given citizenship to shepherds and painters, but not peasants or sculptors.

In the ancient world they had contempt for the slave class, and Magee seems to play up to this, as a provocation, with his use of poor materials and trade skills.

If his two hoops are a really a return to glory, it is therefore because one adorns the wall and might be called a painting. Whether or not it would have pleased Aristotle is a moot point.

Unlike the wall-mounted piece, hula hoops are not usually a perfect circle. Where the hoop joins, you can usually find a stiffened flatter piece of tubing, the artist tells me.

So the work on the floor (therefore a scupture) rests on this straight edge. The work on the wall (a painting of sorts) has been filled out with plasterboard to make a perfect circle.

Arendt also notes that in ancient Greece, there was a feeling of arrogance among the painters. She recalls that even as late as the renaissance, sculptors were considered to be servile.

For this reason Magee’s piece is a bold act of resistance. It is both sculpture, painting and, in stepping back from one example of each, a radical piece of curating. Nothing menial about that.

This work was in Trade at pop up gallery Castor Projects between 29/08 and 10/09. See more by the artist on his website.

Stanley Spencer, Filling Tea Urns, 1927


It may have been said, but a full century before the meme took off, Stanley Spencer painted works which embodied the suggestion we should ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.

Here you see orderlies in a military hospital who, instead of getting depressed or suicidal about the horrors of war, are busy making tea.

But there is a worrying message in scenes like these, painted for the Sandham Memorial Chapel. Things do carry on regardless, and war comes to seem the norm.

Of course, war is the norm. We know that now. And since we keep our postmodern conflicts at arm’s length these days, we can drink tea all day long and not worry.

But Spencer celebrates the everyday pleasures of the battlefield and field hospital: having a shave, making jam sandwiches, getting resurrected. He called it “heaven in a hell of war”.

And if that makes him sound like a futurist, so be it. Were those car parts rather than tea urns, those excitable Italians might have also enjoyed this scene.

To his credit, Spencer prefers people to airplanes and guns. But he paints with mannered realism: great on observation, great on draftsmanship, and through it all a bit weird.

His monumental orderlies still look like rag dolls, stuffed into their clothes. There is no sense of sinew and bone, no wonder that war failed to horrify this curious artist.

The pictured scene is one of 14 predellas, 14 arches and an altarpiece from the chapel in Sandham which was purpose built for Spencer’s elaborate schema.

Restorers are currently getting the building ready to reopen for the centenary of WWI. It will no doubt become a focal point for self-conscious and sombre remembrance.

To look back at a four year tea party, rather than a prolonged massacre, may make it easier for us to deal with in 2014. But is it fair to those who served and fell? I think not.

Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War can be seen at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 15 June 2014.

Tala Madani, Reading Light (2013)


At the risk of over analysing a good joke, it’s worth considering this painting by Tala Madani. It’s as funny as anything in her scurrilous UK survey in Nottingham.

The dude with the erect torch, well, in his mind he’s a sex god. He appears to think that red shaft is a part of his body. Or at least he’s happy for us to think so.

But what most amuses me are the two eager boffins. They come to him with an unfolded map, as if they realise they’re lost, or a blueprint, as if big plans are afoot.

There is nothing sexual about their enquiry at all, but they rely on a diffuse glow from a bigger man’s trousers. And don’t we all? Perhaps men are simply more prone to hero worship.

His actual sex remains a mystery. The torch is also a searchlight. But we cannot see what it has found. (Even if Madani is not averse to painting a cock or two when the occasion calls for it.)

Both the alpha type and the boffins are characters who crop up in other works here.  And as has been pointed out before, the Iranian artist tends to focus on masculinity.

I wanted to link this to her cultural background. If it be difficult to paint like this in present day Iran, be assured that Madani has enjoyed the relative safety of LA since a young age.

But see how this blogger has also bustled up close to the light with a mental map. Like the boffins in this piece, I want to orientate myself and to fix a position for the artist.

Perhaps, and this is a long shot, the paunchy one is not a man at all. Perhaps she is a fleshy stand in for the female artist complete with fetish (torch) and disguise (beard).

Yet the work remains as unknowable as the contents of those tented trousers. The phallus is at once presence and absence at the heart of a biting satire, a drama of gendered darkness and light.

Tala Madani: Rear Projection can be seen at Nottingham Contemporary until 23rd March 2014.

Sara Shamma, Q (2011)


A queue is a Q is a question. Perhaps ‘what are we waiting for’ or ‘why are we waiting’. The answer will depend on your location, class and political circumstances.

In the West we are on the whole happy to queue for a checkout or a cash point. It is, as Jessica Lack points out in the publication for this show, the sign of a ‘civilised way of life’.

But artist Sara Shamma lines up some 10 characters who would surprise you if you met them at your local post office. They are at times translucent, weightless and ethereal.

So, another question, why might ghosts join a queue? Perhaps the queue in this painting represents the scene of a trauma, such as the flight of Shamma’s Syrian compatriots.

Her monumental work is 17m long and is to be read as a series and a circular one at that. Panel one features a mother and child, panel ten: a child and a foetus.

This loops her sad procession into infinity. It would be interesting to know of the first queue in history, just as it would be frightening to receive advance warning of the last.

There is also a menagerie on this road to ruin: elephant, ostrich, ape and shark alike are in line for a so-called promised land. They give the whole scene a certain freakiness.

But what could be more freaky than the frightened population of one city all packing up, leaving home, and heading for a border. The animals tell it like it is.

Another widespread motif is the ironic balloon. Were it not for the anguished expressions here and there you might conclude this was a carnival.

Many of those faces, however, show the skull beneath the skin. Some are treated with the grainy black and white of newsprint. Some feature thick, expressionistic daubing.

The queue has many facets. Shamma breaks the continuity in panel five by painting a line of faceless figures snaking off to the horizon and back. Newsworthy numbers here.

And in a Dalí-esque touch the artist hints at comfort with a tiny chair suspended above a vast abyss. If society breaks down, this epic painting may come back to you.

Q ends on December 2 2013. So get in line at the Upper Gulbenkian Gallery at the Royal College of Art, London.

Bosco Sodi, Untitled (2013)

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Neo-expressionist painting, if that’s what this be, often has literal depth. Layers of paint come between viewer and canvas. And layers don’t get much thicker than those of this Mexican artist.

When you square up to it, there is a material heaviness. And this translates (in our primitive minds) to a metaphorical heaviness: in other words we feel the pull.

Drawn closer to the surface one can lose oneself in the cracks and crumbles as if every square inch was ripe with intention and hard won expression.

But it is not known how much angst this work caused Sodi. None, it is always possible. It is possible he has hit upon a decent trick to provide that instant gravitas.

Like many painters of a certain ilk, he is all about process: spreading on a trademark mix of pigment, sawdust, pulp, fibres and glue. He lets the cracks work themselves.

Indeed Sodi has spoken of relinquishing control. With an element of chance in all his paintings, he works on the floor a la Pollock. Then he leaves it to dry for at least two months.

Most results in this show include a certain furriness, a certain glitter, and a sense that you could pull the paint away from the wall in chunks. As itchy as a scab.

So there may yet be an existential wound behind this work. But equally, there may just be a painter with a technical niche and a Taoist approach to finished product. I’m not sure which to prefer.

Bosco Sodi: Graphein can be seen at PACE London until October 4 2013. See gallery website for more details.

Interview: Dominic from Luton

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Written for Bad At Sports.

It is more than 1,000 miles from Luton, England, to Reykjavik, Iceland. But Dominic from the UK town appears to love a good caper. Why else would he put together a group show on very little money in one of the most far flung and expensive cities in Europe?

“It was done on a wing and a prayer,” he tells me on the phone from his Luton studio. “The art was just really, really ambitious considering we didn’t have much money to play with. It’s amazing what you can do with a cardboard tube and a delivery van.”

Five artists took part. And the show has just run for a month at gallery Kling & Bang. Along with Dominic, the full bill included Gavin Turk, Mark Titchner, Laura White and Peter Lamb. The show went by the name London Utd. “It’s kind of doing what it says on the tin,” says Dominic, whose eponymous town is just a twenty minute train ride from the UK capital.

Not that he is the first to cross the Atlantic to the artist led space. He tells me that Paul McCarthy and Jason Rhoades have also shown at the dynamic and co-operative venue. And Dominic takes the opportunity to recount the tale of Kling & Bang’s legendary appearance at Frieze Art Fair.

“They did a Frieze Project in London in 2008 called Sirkus. It’s an incredible story,” says the artist, telling me that Sirkus was the name of a Reykyavik bar: “This place was the hub, the heartbeat of the arts community”. But after nine years of business, Sirkus closed down, leaving Kling & Bang free to turn the façade and fixtures into a temporary installation for the art fair.

Dominic warms to his tale: “They arrived at Heathrow in October 2008 and basically all their credit cards had been stopped because the [Icelandic] crash had suddenly happened overnight and so this bar, which was a mirror of good times and place to meet, became that again in London.” Word soon went round about the penniless Icelanders with the reconstructed bar.

Things are a bit better in Reykjavik now and in its way London Utd has become another bridge between the art scenes in both cities. Mark Titchner’s piece was a piece of text in Icelandic, which read The World Isn’t Working. (Perhaps the UK crash is yet to come.)

Gavin Turk meanwhile offered a twelve and a half metre diptych inspired by Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster series and featuring the four wheeled emblem of working class Britain the Ford Transit. Laura White produced no less than 54 drawings of photos of sculptures which she herself had made. And Peter Lamb translated the shifting detritus on his studio floor into two large abstract canvases.

Asked about one of his own works in the show, Dominic is ready with another yarn. “That photo was done as a tribute to Paul Young,” he tells me. Like the artist, the singer came from Luton. “He used to work at Vauxhall [car plant] in the early 80s and he told someone I know in the canteen once that he was going to be a global pop star and then literally 18 months later he was, with Everytime You Go Away.”

The track resonates with many a Lutonian and inspired a Dominic from Luton performance at an event called Café Almanac organised by Bedford Creative Arts. This involved sourcing an 80s wig from Luton Indoor Market, posing for a portrait artist in the shopping centre and getting 5,000 badges made to cover a cheap suit. “I just stood up in front of about 50 people in this Working Men’s Club on a Saturday afternoon and sung my heart out,” recalls the artist.

This took place under a net filled with 200 balloons in the colours of the local soccer team, intended for release in the final verse. However “The net got caught in all of my badges so I had 200 balloons attached to me and I panicked and – it wasn’t scripted at all – I basically ended up having a fight with these balloons and stamping on them and stuff and it brought the house down actually.”

But despite the hazardous stagecraft, Dominic’s “biggest challenge” is a self-proclaimed inability to sing. So it comes as no surprise that the artist thinks most performance art is too earnest. “People would argue with this, but I think there’s a duty to entertain,” he says, “That’s just my take on it. That’s my little mantra.” Even the anecdotes which relate to each of his gigs are compelling experiences.

As a final aside, it’s worth pointing out that the artist formerly known as Dominic Allan comes from one of the most derided towns in the UK. His “from Luton” tag is a sticky piece of cultural baggage. Dominic tells me that the name just came about through being easy to remember when he ordered materials.

Now, he claims, “It’s just a very glorious vehicle for the idea of the underdog and also to shove it back in people’s faces now because Luton’s one of those towns which people laugh about . . . The more I go on, the more I realise that it is serious, and it is serious”.

So that’s Dominic, from Luton, easy to laugh with, hard to laugh at. Prepare to be entertained if he ever comes to your town.

Dominic from Luton website; Kling and Bang website; Bad at Sports homepage.

Interview: David Wightman

David Wightman. Photo by Jess Long

David Wightman. Photo by Jess Long

He grew up making fantasy art. He now sells ‘fantasy’ landscapes. But there can be few artists who cleave to the tradition of painting like David Wightman. Nevermind that he says of his mountainous scenes: “They’re fictions. They’re not real places.”

Visiting his studio, I was struck by the minimal clutter in his space. Daylight bulbs gave the room a perfect brightness. A finished work and one unfinished hung on opposite walls. There was a concise bookshelf of art tomes and a cluster of art postcards on another white wall. In crates near the door are rolls of cheap white wallpaper, the found object of choice for this artist.

Wightman himself is youthful, genial and keen to explain his genre, his use of media, and the process he goes through to create each of his alien yet seductive mountain vistas. You might guess he spends a lot of time defending his practice to peers whose work is less stubborn and shackled to art history: “What I do has more to do with the history of painting over the last 2,000 years and less to do with the last 100 years.”

But reverence was not always a quality in the work. When still at school in Stockport, Wightman considered that: “Art was something that happened a long time ago and I didn’t really think artists existed anymore in the same way I didn’t think witches existed any more”. Instead, his visual response to schooldays was drawing “barbarian warriors fighting each other with axes”.

He moved onto painting after an imaginative stepmother took him to visit Manchester Art Gallery and then went on to art school with the support of an inspirational art teacher. It could have all been so different. The future he imagined for himself was illustration for genre literature. As things stand he is a successful fine artist on the roster of Halcyon Gallery, preparing for second solo show there, working title Arcadia.

Now he can look back and say, “The more I have looked into the history of landscapes, the more I’ve realised that I actually am part of that tradition, whereas before I thought I was removed from it.” It turns out that fantasy and serious art have a longstanding and fruitful relationship.

“What I do isn’t really that unique. Making made-up landscape, that’s always been done,” he points out. Realism in scenic art is only as old as impressionism, it seems, and even then the colours are unreal. Wightman can also reel of a list of precedents for what he now does, including Caspar David Friedrich, Poussin, Claude, even Turner and Constable. “Some of them purport to be real places and others are completely mythical or fantastical. There’s an element of fantasy to all of them.”

A typical Wightman scene will include a mountain lake, a snowy peak or two, perhaps a chalet but with an absence of figures. He’ll refuse to disclose the whereabouts of his source material, but will admit his quietly psychedelic scenes are more likely to reflect the landscapes of the Alps, Rockies or Himalayas rather than the Peak District close to his childhood home. The very next thing you will notice is the subtle relief that pervades the entire canvas.

It is, after all, 2013 and even traditional artists must break with tradition. Wightman’s trademark innovation is to paint onto raised wallpaper and collage the results to give his work a fake impasto texture. The process is laborious, precise, and time consuming, to do with the craft of marquetry as much as painting. “Most of what I do is drawing and tracing and cutting and collaging and recutting,” he tells me. “80 percent of my time in the studio is doing that and 20 percent of the time is actually painting.”

The artist’s accomplishments are quite clear from a close examination of the work. The paintwork is flawless, as if untouched by human hand. The colourfields interlock with millimetre-tight precision. The overall effect is one of balance, even as the colours have tended in recent times to move towards abstraction. None of this could be achieved without a careful system.

To this end, Wightman works in similar stages to a master of old. He plans each painting by making a sketch, he blows these up to draft the finished work and he keeps good records of the end result. And aware of the risk of being called pretentious, he is happy to call these sketches by their Italian names: modello, cartoon and ricordo. (Even though much of this working out takes place a Sony laptop.) He also shares his colour charts in which he puts together swatches and matches tones with care.

“People come to the studio, they think the whole swatch thing is remarkable, and it’s like, that’s what painters do and I’ve come to it to solve a problem.” Wightman insists he never set out to ape a prolific notebook author like Leonardo da Vinci: “I did it because I wanted to solve a problem in my studio and then I’ve learned that’s what other painters do as well”. Having a collector accidentally damage a finished work, this artist has learned the hard way that the old ways can be best.

“All painting’s technical. All painters have a system,” the artist says with just a hint of defensiveness, “Maybe Julian Schnabel doesn’t have a system but he’s the exception.” Just back from a trip to New York, Wightman is also critical of what he sees as Andy Warhol’s arbitrary use of colour.

“[Colour] wasn’t something I cared about at college,” he continues. “You weren’t allowed to care about it. It was a bit geeky, and that’s something that amateurs care about. It’s another reason why I’m far more interested in calling myself a painter.” Now he says of his methodical practice: “The colour is actually the hard part because it’s far more intuitive. In a way it’s getting harder the more I think about colour.”

So with each new work, Wightman still has a mountain to climb. But what a view.

Here’s a link to David Wightman’s website