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

Franz West, 6 Adaptives for Rolls Royce Silver Shadow (2007)

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On some level you may already be offended. You don’t need to be a total petrolhead to find the addition to this prestigious bonnet to be something of a defacement.

Let’s be honest, it lacks the easy romance of the flying woman usually found on the prow of a Rolls: The Spirit of Ecstasy by Charles Robinson Sykes.

Sometimes called Emily, this stainless steel form (with 24-carat gold plating optional) has a really great backstory: a clandestine love affair and a disaster at sea are both involved.

Austrian sculptor West has pretty much dumped on that. He made six of these turd-like accessories for the luxury car market: one for every day of the working week.

Irony alert: if you are a Rolls Royce customer you probably don’t need to pull a full week’s shift. And yet, this work feels only indirectly political. It is too playful for that.

What’s more, given that it is one of the Austrian artist’s adaptive pieces, we can perhaps only grasp the work by getting behind the wheel joining in with the consumption of luxury.

But it should be noted the car belongs to Norwegian collector Erling Kagge; it is unlikely he lets just anyone test drive one of the jewels of his personal collection.

In his book about buying art, Kagge relates how, when he bought this piece, he was surprised to find the car thrown in with the deal. It was itemised merely as a plinth.

But a weird thing happens when the three dimensional graffiti above the grille throws the viewer’s attention back onto the aesthetics of said plinth, four wheels and all.

Good taste can take a holiday. West once called his adaptives, “a potential attempt to give form to neurotic symptoms (according to Freud the foundation of culture)”.

We think we know what neurosis leads to the acquisition of a big, powerful car. Let’s just say that the pictured adaptive is the least phallic in the range.

The rest come in a range of colours, including flesh, and cruising round town with your insecurities in full view, rather than simply your wealth, must be quite therapeutic.

West’s piece can be seen in Love Story: Works from Erling Kagge’s Collection, at the Astrup Fearnley Museum for Modern Art in Olso, until 27 September 2015.


Ian Hamilton Finlay, In Revolution Politics Become Nature (1980)

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A slogan is etched into a block of stone and the stone laid on a piece of red felt. There is something somewhat reverent about this inscription; the words carry weight and are to be handled with care.

You read the title off the block. And then you read it in a different way off the plaque on the wall. Just as you would read it in a different way again, if sprayed on brickwork. It’s unstable stone.

We all have our own reading. It’s the word nature which divides the audience. Is it human nature, as the Latinate letters imply? Or is it nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ as suggested by the crimson felt?

Perhaps it is even ‘second’ nature. It is as if, after the revolution, it will become habitual to think in political terms. It is as if it would take a revolution, not an election, to wake us all up in that way.

Finlay was a poet before he was an artist. Hence the gift for ambiguity. But the plastic elements in this work only add to the secrecy of his meaning. The poet is washing his hands of your response.

But the classical lettering must tell us something. At the very least it tells us that Finlay intends for his words to be around for millennia. To a blogger such as myself, that’s frankly scary.

The five terse words have been cut by his frequent collaborator Nicholas Sloan. A classical typeface suggests classical values. Social revolution was surely never among the values of Rome.

But the line is broken in three places. The tablet can barely contain the message. And so the artist’s sentiment, be it warning or promise, threatens to break free. As do we all from time to time.

Felt is a curious choice of material, more associated with the Asiatic barbarians at the gate. Or with Jospeh Beuys, another sloganeer. Beuys made a great deal of the healing properties of felt.

So as to revolution? You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, or even stones. But perhaps you can mop up the blood. And to say as much is as natural as it is political.

This piece can be seen at Manchester Art Gallery.


Tom Dale, Rock on Standby (2014)

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The LED blinks on and off. We could be here a while. As deep history has shown, a rock like this can take its own sweet time to breathe forth life, or yawn and swallow us all.

Just whose hand might go to the remote to activate a 80kg lump of sandstone? Would it be a god, or an artist, or an artist who thinks they might be a god? Or even a reviewer.

A classical sculptor could make something of this proposition. From Michelangelo to Brancusi, the chisel and hammer have been switching on stones in the name of art.

But this is a digital rock, so that wouldn’t appear to work. We have enough animate objects in our homes. We no longer need figurines, no longer need expressive miracles.

The red glow of the pilot light is miracle enough. It appears to take its power from deep inside its core. No one plugged in this boulder; it is pure potential.

Mind you, Rock on Standby is already activated to some degree by a plinth, a photo, a blog post. Are not all inert works of art on standby in this familiar sense? A collector would certainly trigger it.

As possessors of eyes, etc., we come ready to push buttons. Until then, we might be on standby too. In fact, we are the ones who really come to life around this piece.

We cannot look away from this collision between two speeds: geological time and recent speeds like broadband and 4G. We can hardly get faster. This rock reminds us how far we’ve come.

It also hints at the speed of the rock on which we live: about 30km per second. The Earth too is on standby, primed for natural disaster, a likelihood we are also accelerating.

So nice to know the artist hasn’t lost his sense of humour. If you could ROFL in a gallery without being ejected, you just might. This heavy piece of work has the lightest of touches.

Tom Dale: Terminal Blue can be seen at John Hansard Gallery, Southampton, until 7 February 2015. For more on this artist see my previous posts here, here, and here.


Nick Davies, From Tippex Forms (i-iv) (2014)

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It’s a curious thing. It is hoped that not many typos find their way from this keyboard onto your screen. But a recent blog post for Bad at Sports had at least three. My very bad.

What made it strange was that the subject of my review, Nick Davies, has been doing fantastic things with Tipp-Ex and hence capitalising on mistakes like mine, but those made in another age.

Here you see a sculpture made from Mistake Out, as it was first called. Note the petri dish; it looks to have been grown here like a stunted GM tree and not painstakingly painted into existence.

But of all the forms which dried Tipp-Ex could take, this tree is the most appropriate, as if Liquid Paper emanated from a liquid forest. (Without wood pulp we’d not have needed it.)

And this petrified grove, for there are a group of these sculptures, bring together the lab, the office and the gallery. All of which are implicated with the desolate whiteness of the plantlife.

True, we have made some mistakes. We have signed away logging rights for far too many real trees. We have polluted seas and killed off coral reefs, which also come to mind.

It’s a major oversight. If only we could go back in time and erase a few thousand pen strokes. But Tipp-Ex was only about ameliorating office life, not life on the planet in general.

Now we have the delete button. Thanks to which, and to cut and paste, writing has become a kind of collage. And so it moves closer to art or at least to artfulness, and to the covering of tracks.

But mistakes just don’t seem to go away. There are social media users who post as quick as they can think and comment leavers oblivious to their crimes against grammar. Bloggers make howlers.

We’re really getting sloppy, and it’s a growing problem, like one of Davies’ spectral trees. Which just brings up the title of the artist’s handmade book, The Principal [sic] of Limited Sloppiness.

He borrows the maxim from scientist Max Delbruck: “One should be sloppy enough so that the unexpected happens, but not so sloppy that one can’t figure out what has happened afterwards.”

This holds true for conceptual artists as much as scientists. So proceeding with a Tipp-Ex mindset might now be the best way forward. The book, by the way, is immaculate.

The full show, Intention Invention Convention by Nick Davies, can be seen at exeter phoenix until January 10 2015. Here’s my (soon amended) post for Bad at Sports.


Eduardo Chillida, From Within (1953)

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It hangs like a chandelier designed to throw shade. You cannot walk beneath it without speculating on your own death. And it’s made of iron, technology of another age.

The view’s not so great from this angle, but the form echoes a swastika. And that would be a treacherous swastika with a half yard long stake attached. It threatens like the Sword of Damocles.

This too hung by a thread. In legend, it was a single hair from a horse’s tail. But Chillida has used a near invisible length of what looks like fishing line. It sure hooks you.

And since the Iron Cross was a teutonic symbol and a military decoration during the Third Reich, Chillida might be reflecting on the inherent danger of usurping power.

At the time of making the Basque sculptor was living in his native region and Spain was a dictatorship. There would have been many who would have liked to cut that slender wire.

Or course, this might as usual be reading too much into a formal exercise. From Within is a piece that can also be enjoyed as a spatial conundrum and a source of abstract tension.

But formalism is political too and the title of this piece makes me think of a German painter like Franz Marc, on show nearby. He too is said to have found inspriation ‘within’.

Marc wrote: “The great shapers do not search for their form in the fogs of the past. They plumb for the innermost true centre of gravity of their own times.”

And Chillida has surely created a complex form which not only defies gravity but, in its emptiness and angularity, draws the eye away from the earth. It does so even as we flinch from its latent threat.

From Within can be found in a gallery devoted to Chillida as part of the current show: The Art of Our Time: Masterpieces of the Guggenheim Collection at the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao.

The third floor of the exhibition, featuring both Chillida and Marc, runs until 23 January 2015. The quote comes from one of the expressionist painter’s 1914-15 Aphorisms (#32).


Rachael Champion, Naturally Occurring  Brutalist Structure (2013)

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An observation: spheres of Perspex and pea shingle have gravity in the same way that planets do. This piece by Rachael Champion has neither colour nor much visual stimuli, yet it has pull.

Taken in isolation, gravel, pebbledash, and industrial tiling are unlovely things. And no one could argue this sculpture has much conventional beauty. But, along with presence, it has something else.

Perhaps what it has is, despite the title, is a tangle with nature. In a tiled surround like this you might expect to find a tree, a shrub, even a piece of topiary. But here we have a man-made boulder.

Were you taking a cigarette break outside the glass atrium of your office block, you would not even know this was a sculpture. Even if you noticed it, my guess is it would non-plus most people.

You wouldn’t even think to vandalise it, let alone steal it. And for this reason if for no other, Champion has solved a couple of perennial issues with public art, if art it really be.

Mind you, the title also suggests we consider this a piece of architecture, a brutalist structure no less. And indeed this piece overwhelms in the same way as, say, the Brighton Centre.

That’s no mean feat for something about 4ft cubed. Champion’s piece threatened to dominate the recent show in which she was included, like a bull in a china shop, or a noisy piece of construction.

And there’s a kind of righteousness about the work of a builder. He or she (usually he) feels no need to justify what they do, not even when they wake you at 8am on a Saturday.

Every project completed, no matter how ugly or beautiful, has a clear use and a value agreed upon in advance. If artists like Champion want some of that, who can blame them?

Naturally Occurring  Brutalist Structure was in Trade at pop up gallery Castor Projects between 29/08 and 10/09. See more by the artist on her website.


Alan Magee, Return to glory (2014)

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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.


Photos: Museo Nacional de Escultura

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A National Sculpture Museum is to be found in a small city, some 200 km north of Madrid. But don’t expect too much marble, bronze or mixed media here in Valladolid. During their golden age, Spain’s sculptors worked in wood.

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Presenting exhibit A: close up of a sizeable tiered seating arrangement for a church choir. Its makers really haven’t missed a trick, covering each surface with narrative carving and embellishing wherever possible. It’s overwhelming.

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Most often they would paint their creations to make polychromes. Here are two sybils, perhaps dreaming of a future on a fairground ride or a carnival float. Polychromes are carried to the street during Holy Week here.

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Levi, son of Jacob. My biblical knowledge is pretty inadequate, but since all his many brothers were all quite hirsute, he caught my eye. He looks like he’s getting riled by a refereeing decision, and somehow you feel his pain.

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But I jest. They take their religion seriously in this part of the world. Here’s a flagellant getting down to business. I take back what I said about mixed-media. Those are real cords of rope. There’s very little heroic about polychromes.

crucifixion

Here’s the man behind the plan. I’ve not seen such a mannered crucifixion anywhere else. Just look at the tension in those feet. I think this is 15th century. Well before the German Expressionists, at any rate.

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Contrast the delicate pillow with the flowing gore. This sculpture was perhaps the centrepiece of The Sacred Made Real at the National Gallery back in 2009. It’s by Gregorio Fernández, who we can call a wound fetishist.

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This is by Pedro de Mena. Critics will argue that it is kitsch. And indeed, to be any more kitsch you would need to remake it with wax. But the seventeenth century’s most fiercely held beliefs reverberate throughout this museum.

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This piece by Juan de Juni is pretty mannerist, but the forms have been compacted rather than stretched. This burly witness of Christ’s death has enough delicacy to show us a single murderous thorn. His expression is priceless.

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This Saint Peter, again by Fernández, offers a little light relief with his rosy cheeks and curly beard. It serves as an example to suggest that, as mediums go, wood carries less gravitas than stone or metal. I wonder why. Answers in the comments box, please . . .

Visit the Museum website and consider a tip to Valladolid: museoescultura.mcu.es


Photostory: Ryan Gander at Manchester Art Gallery

Ryan Gander is an artist who embodies the dictum by Jasper Johns, which goes: ”Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.”. His work is multi-faceted.

Consider this homemade calendar for example. Populated by jottings from Gander’s notebooks, it comes with an evocative and seeming arbitrary title: And what if no one believes the truth?

Gander D

More jottings, this time from a theoretical art world dinner party. The artist seemed to expect us to pick up and examine his power seating plan. The invigilators were not so keen.

Gander F

More discarded art could be found nearby. Though you could easily miss this ‘quarter centi-dollar’. Glueing coins to the floor was a prank much loved by Gander’s father.

But as with all works here, the object is layered with conceptual difference. We are invited to believe this is a coin from the future, 2032, when today’s quarters will be worth $25.

Gander H

As someone who’s worked on a few public sector ad campaigns before, I was very taken and taken in by Gander’s 30″ spot for a fictitious government department of the imagination.

It was put together by Kirke and Hodgson with Gander playing the role of client. Certainly it must have been the strangest brief this small agency has had the pleasure to work on.

Gander I

One of the frustrations of this show was a lack of unifying aesthetic. It leaves a disparate impression in the mind’s eye and, if anything, gazes back at you (through conceptual shades).

Really! Below you can see Magnus Opus. It consists of two animatronic eyes with which you can interact. Noisy, googly, broadly humorous, they look, but are no lookers.

Gander B

More cartoonery was to be found on an adjacent wall. Tintin fans will recognise these emotive dazed stars from any of the hero’s tales. Gander isolates them and puts in quote marks.

But in fact, this piece is incredibly complex, comparing reactions to Tintin’s abandoned final tale, from the point of view of creator, central character and the civilian identity of Hergé.

Gander C

Gander is to be applauded for not wanting to make the same work twice, but he rarely hits the same note twice. There are a few chords in this show, but is there a coherent tune?

How do you compare a knowing slice of cartoon history with the innocent response to his wife’s desire for a designer lamp. Gander made the light below from junk.

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So even this has a backstory. There’s not a piece here in Manchester which I didn’t like in one way or another; as a show not sure. But coherent tunes are probably old hat anyway.

Ryan Gander: Make every show like it’s your last is at Manchester Art Gallery until September 14 2014. My review for the Arts Desk can be found here.


Photodiary: Franz West at The Hepworth Wakefield

This was my first visit to The Hepworth and I was blown away by a) the David Chipperfield building and b) the setting by the River Calder. Here’s a view from one to the other.

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We were here for the biggest every show at the gallery and the UK’s first major survey of work by Franz West. The Austrian artist walks a thin line between the abject and the appealing.

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Curators and directors took the brave move to show West alongside the presiding genius of this part of the world. His raw plaster heads might be said to belch and heckle the nearby Hepworths.

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This was my favourite piece in the show. It’s just a chair, you might point out, and not a very solid one. But I love the spirit of making do and improvisation. It’s a chair built from hearsay.

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This below also tickled me. For reasons best known to the artist, the bottle is wearing a silver mac. Jokes, of the sort which fellow Viennese Freud might have chewed over, abound in this show.

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This wall mounted installation was called Personale (1995/7), a cluster of works by other artists. That is, I believe, French Shower by Jason Rhoade, but navigation was an issue.

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Beyond the television set you see a handful of West’s much acclaimed ‘adaptives’. Visitors are encouraged to pick these up and explore their weight and dimensions. Radical, huh?

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This was just one ingenious element in a much bigger installation with a title translating as pork chops. Like I say, West really does go in for Mitteleuropean drôlerie.

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And below you can see Parrhesia (2010) a group of talking heads enjoying some ancient Greek democracy. But “I am a sculptor, not a hewer of ideas,” said West.

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So despite his extensive self-directed reading, Wittgenstein and, yes, Freud were not chief materials for this iconoclastic sculptor. Plaster and scrap, on the other hand, were.

In other words he only changed the face of modern sculpture by rolling up his sleeves. As a hopeful hewer of words, the more I think about this show, the better it gets.

Franz West: Where is my Eight? can be seen at The Hepworth Wakefield until 14 September 2014. Read my review on The Arts Desk.