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

Drawing the line somewhere: writing for free about art

untitled blog

Art Rules was a shortlived online experiment from the ICA and in 2013 I was one of many people asked for some wisdom. “Don’t plan on getting paid or laid,” I wrote. “The work is its own reward.”

Well, Lucky pdf, an arts collective who are much cooler than me, wrote “Don’t work for free”.  But I would contend we both have a point. The work is its own reward, yet has monetary value.

That is in essence the beauty of both writing and art. Surely nothing worthwhile is ever made with a price tag in mind. And so the art world is as full of freebies as it is full of art fairs and auctions.

We need hardly enumerate the perks of engaging with this system: free admission to galleries, free wine at openings, free press releases, free selfie opportunities and free reviews online.

Then a middle tier: blockbuster shows cost up to £20; catalogues can cost even more; editions will set you back three figures. But all of the above augment a pleasant middle class lifestyle.

The gateway comes next: work by ‘name’ artists costs between the price of a car and a house; at auction, you could spend millions; if accepted as a collector you’ll become an art world VIP.

At this point you may want to loan one of your works to a museum, thus increasing its value. Or you may want to bequeath all your art to a provincial gallery, ensuring immortality: a good trade.

Artists themselves meanwhile have to speculate to accumulate. At the very least they will need to buy materials. At worst, for their pockets, they’ll manage to rent a studio or hire assistants.

Journos can get by with a laptop, a pad and a pen, and a voice recorder. Utilised to our advantage these will gain enviable invitations to press launches and press trips.

After that point, whether visual artist or art writer, you will want to sell work. This is as difficult as it sounds. We are legion and there are always pre-validated colleagues out there with more talent.

So I found myself coming back to that pearl of wisdom from Lucky pdf. It struck me as quite an important principle. Giving away art or giving away writing does no one any favours, surely.

And yet we have social practice, a genre of art which thrives off what is freely given. And yet we have blogs like this one, which never make a bean.  And on social media, every darn thing is free.

I guess that moving forward, the approach should be: don’t give away more than you earn. Be you an artist, writer or curator, you should try and come out of your professional activities in the black.

With that in mind, it’s worth considering a new phenomenon: the crowdsourced gallery guide. Back in August I was invited by one of these to volunteer some commentary for a current London show.

The email, from a Michael Bouhanna from Untitled, captured my imagination because the featured artist was Jeff Koons and the gallery was Damien Hirst’s. I have written on both, but who hasn’t?

It can’t even be said that the request came from either of the two great men. This untitled gallery guide was positioning itself as a public service, as a kind of digital intervention.

This was supposedly in response to the lack of clear interpretation which goes along with some of the work in Hirst’s personal £100 million collection of art shown in his purpose built gallery.

But no matter how frequently I have worked for free, to promote myself or support an artist, I would never for a moment think that the Murderme collection or Newport Street Gallery needed my help.

In return Bouhanna offered the chance to join  a community of ‘passionate’ art enthusiasts who may or may not attain VIP status at future shows or art fairs. That doesn’t really appeal.

Indeed I found more community belonging on my Facebook wall where, being a blogger of the passive aggressive variety, I eventually cropped up to share my dismay at this cheeky request.

Writer Ben Street and artist Paul Brandford, who are both already VIPs to me, soon reported having similar experiences with Untitled. Bouhanna clearly spread his net far and wide.

The guide itself later arrived. One wonders if he paid the designer. Punters might be better off reading a broadsheet review and/or Mr Koons’ Wikipedia page.

The episode just threw into relief a truth about the market in which art finds itself. The rich get richer and sometimes it gets rich off studio assistants, interns and on occasion art bloggers.

But the wonderful thing about blogging is this: you can pick or choose what you write about. I hope Michael if you are reading, you will understand why I chose not to write for you.

Mark Leckey, Dream English Kid, 1964-1999 AD (2015)


We can tell a number of things about Mark Leckey from this autobiographical film. So, the Merseysider grew up in the shadow of the Beatles, the A-bomb and the 1999 solar eclipse.

Dream English Kid is a life story made with footage found online. So we also pick up on memories of motorways, pylons, football crowds, nightclubs, London squats and sex shops.

One presumes, the national grid has found its way here through the phenomenon of nomative determinism. ‘Lecky’, a homonym for the artist’s name, is of course slang for electricity.

To underline this, he compiles shots of MANWEB stores (the Merseyside And North Wales Electricity Board). Plus a sheet of paper with ‘lekke’ scrawled in childish hand.

As any Freudian will tell you it is precisely this type of slippery play which characterises the dream. And so the artist relates to YouTube as any good analysand would relate to his/her unconscious.

Both dreamer and fetishist, Leckey offers us several moments with a Hitchcockesque blonde in a corset; she teases out her hair as we focus on the mechanics of her stockings.

What is Leckey telling us here? Or when the camera pans across several shelves of blue movies in Soho? And was he aware of the traditional dangers of auto erotic dreaming?

From Saint Augustine to Alex Portnoy, sexual fantasy has been a central part of mental life. Though for a visual artist, blindness would be catastrophic, ‘watching’ the eclipse doubly dangerous.

Light and shade provide an equally dangerous contrast in a sequence of footage captured in Eric’s nightclub in Liverpool in 1979, on a night legendary band Joy Division came to town.

Epileptic singer Ian Curtis can be seen risking a fit as he winds his arms up and down in the midst of a frenzy of strobe and cacophonous post punk rumble. Leckey was at the gig.

So the 23-minute film is as much a bildungsroman as a therapeutic confessional. Stark images of a sleeping bag on a lonely mattress in a bare room have the quality of a cocoon.

The artist pupates. Some more professional nightclub footage (1980s, big hair, with Cinzano Rosso as tipple of choice) pre-echoes his 1999 film Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (another autobiography).

For me the most intriguing shot was the hands flicking through a record rack at Black Market Records in Soho. An album by The Shadows plays with the notion of chiaroscuro.

We also find Joy Division (Eric’s!), Kraftwerk (motorways!), and the Beatles (hometown!). I seem to remember it was A Hard Day’s Night, whose famous opening chord is sampled elsewhere twice.

Most spooky is a comedy LP by Kenneth Williams called On Pleasure Bent. It was the title Leckey borrowed for his first monograph and a 2013 film which may have been a prototype for this one.

Of all the racks in all the lands, the artist came across this one. This is dream logic at someone else’s fingertips, as the unconscious works through the dark, vinyl-like grooves of the mind.

Dream English Kid can be seen at Camp & Furnace throughout the 2016 Liverpool Biennial (July 9 – October 16).

Accessory to the fact: art in American Psycho


Next year it will be 25 years since American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis; in that time various crimes have been exposed in the banking industry. So it seemed timely to reread.

But it’s not just about greed and Wall Street. It’s about fashion, food, designer goods and popular music. It’s hardly about art at all, but what little there is will amuse you. It’s a blackly funny yarn.

Patrick Bateman has a dubious gift for recognising labels and brands. The running joke of this 400 page book is that every last outfit is broken down, itemised and noted.

So here, art is just another commodity. In a friend’s house, he spots “spooky” photos by Cindy Sherman and a painting by Eric Fischl, which he doesn’t even bother describing. (pp.279-80)

And while running from police he recognises a Julian Schnabel painting in a lobby. (You were just waiting for one to appear). It’s how he realises he’s in the “wrong fucking building”. (p. 351)

But the artist who most speaks to or for Bateman is David Onica. He owns a painting which sounds to be the original version of Sunrise with Broken Plates. He discreetly boasts about its cost.

The painting is mentioned a number of times. A crack appears in the ceiling overhead. And before she meets her fate, a murder victim points out the work is hung upside down. A loopy sign.

After dispatching this girlfriend, Bateman sells one Onica painting and buys another. This time it is “a huge portrait of a graphic equaliser done in chrome and pastels”. A portrait of a thing? Right.

As if in response to its literary fame, the artist remade his Sunrise painting in 2004 and now sells a range of merchandise from mugs to iPhone cases. One wonders what became of the original.

It is chastening that the most evil and soulless of characters also owns a Frank Stella print and, in his office at Pierce & Pierce, a painting by George Stubbs, the location of which he muses about.

Just where does one place a sign of ‘old money’, amidst state of the art stereo equipment and a 1980s twilight blue colour scheme? It is just this conflict which has spawned a Bateman.

By the time the murder count is in double figures, the killer finds himself out with, among others, a one John Constable (p. 347). So much for pastoral romance. This book kills it stone dead.

Page numbers refer to Picador edition of American Pscyho (c) 1991. David Onica merchandise can be found here.

Photos: Museo Nacional de Escultura


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.

intense wood

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

ecce homo

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.


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.

san pedro

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

The Martin Creed Band @ Brighton Festival


Martin Creed has some good tunes. No, really. For the week following his gig in Brighton, there are still one or two which bounce around between the ears.

His lyrics are to the point. Highlight of the show was a rendition of the alphabet, from “a-a a a a-a-a-a” through to “z-z z z z-z-z-z”. Creed’s lively sense of fun is not news.

But to say the Martin Creed Band were contenders for all time favourite musical act would be somewhat pretentious. Even buying a CD from the merch stand would seem strange.

Conceptual music is generally bad news. “Ideas, sugar, are not sexy,” to quote a character in a story by Amy Hempel. This holds true in music, surely. Possibly in art blogs too.

Art itself, by contrast, is a vast playground of ideas. And no one knows this better than Creed. Whether stacking objects according to size or turning a light on and off, the idea is all.

This systematic artist is the least likely musician. But you could argue that a few rock myths find their way in, that happily enough Creed loses a bit of control.

His angular powerpop seems like a matter of taste rather than deliberation. And one thinks of some of Creed’s Scottish compatriots, that whole Glasgow heritage.

In fact, the Pastels (named after an art material) once released an example of system pop worthy of Kraftwerk, the  Ramones, or anyone else to whom you’d want to compare Creed.

So, it is not hard to locate him in the tradition of bands who shambled into the indie charts three decades ago and learned just enough of their instruments to get up on stage.

But Creed is making things difficult for himself with both harmonica licks and guitar solos. If he is not careful he could get misled by his growing technical skills.

Whereas art has good ideas, music has a wealth of magic and pomp. You cannot strap on an electric guitar without buying into these. Creed even plays a chord midair at one point.

Or did my eyes deceive me? Certainly the visual element was strong, with this unorthodox frontman opting for tartan trousers and a garish tank top. He must have known.

So in contrast to the glam posturings of David Lemalas or Nice Style, from the early 70s, here is an artist who apparently sets out to reject the trappings of rock and roll.

The stage, however, owns him. Swapping guitars from a rack of three or introducing his band, Creed becomes every frontman in the history of rock. It’s a curious thing.

The Martin Creed Band played Brighton Dome Studio Theatre on 06 May 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.

Work Programme at CAC

work programme

“Unfortunately, this being East Germany/Gert patriotically volunteered to be sent on a labour/Beautification course of the countryside north-west of Dresden/And never seen again.” *

There is something punitive about Work Programme at the gallery known as CAC. At time of writing we’re on edition 28, and more than 27 souls have already pitched in and given us shows. Work is on the tin; artists are expected to labour. And this is a Programme, a temporal and spatial structure which must be followed: fill a Brighton gallery in just six days and make it good.

But what results! Each one has been a triumph of the impossible. Rarely have so many, produced so much, in so little time and with so little cash. Hard graft has led to, I would say, miracles. And to arrive at a launch is always to see a familiar place rendered strange. Yet the next conscript moves in on the very next day. A Francis Alÿs piece comes to mind: Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing.

This important film, also called Paradox of Praxis, follows the Belgian artist as he pushes a block of ice around the streets of Mexico City. It takes an entire day for the sliding block of H2O to melt. So he is left with nothing (although of course he has a film). Work Programme also leads to nothing. But in both cases, nothing is not a failure but a good outcome.

Needless to say, in these austere times, Work Programme doesn’t pay. In this respect it is worse than sewing mail bags. But, if only for one week, free labour does allow artists to opt out from the dominant economy, with its hedge funds and its property ladders. It gives participants and audience, alike, access to another non-monetary system, that of the gift.

Anthropologists are not the only ones to have an interest in the gift-giving feast of potlatch. Found in North West Canada and some parts of the States, this competitive event is a non-lethal act of war. It asks which indigenous tribe can give away the most. Things get out of hand, buildings are burnt and possessions thrown in rivers.

Meanwhile back at CAC, shows open on saturday evening; on sunday they close. The spotlight lasts less than 24 hours. Work is removed, and often destroyed, before the weekend is out. This moves us away from the commodification of art and, in the subterranean space at CAC, we find a community of artists and friends surely tapping into something a little more primal.

And just as cells (correctional and/or monastic) are the most ambient of spaces. The architecture at 31 Queens Road are by now well charged with hard work, anxiety and at times, clearly, wild flights of inspiration. CAC might be the engine room of the Brighton art scene, making other gallery models look cumbersome.

But are they cumbersome, or merely humane? As demonstrated, this is a punishing model for art production. If it suggests a gulag or a camp, that would suit our provincial setting at the end of the A23. And by the way, a certain Mark E Smith (singer with The Fall) once described Brighton as a “cultural prison”**. To the best of my knowledge he has never been to Work Programme, but he would recognize it for what it is.

The first Work Programme of 2014 opens (and closes) on Saturday 18/01 at 7pm at Community Arts Centre, 31 Queens Road. The artist in residence is Sam Ayres.

*The Fall, Athlete Cured (from the 1988 album, The Frenz Experiment).

**Mark E Smith, Renegade (Penguin 2008), p.150

Richard Serra, Courtauld Transparency #4 (2013)



What’s behind a painting or drawing, literally? The reverse of a canvas is a necessary mystery, with its potential for jottings, classifications, signatures and in some cases failed attempts.

In terms of drawing, Serra knows enough about failure. The 14 works made for the Courtauld are to some degree beyond his control. So the rejects “far outweigh” the successes*.

Still, he presents us here with the hint of a reverse side, a see-though,’ canvas’. This is the first time a museum has shown his drawings on transparent Mylar.

You soon realise that behind a contemporary drawing by Serra, you will find only more drawing. Litho crayon sticks to both sides of his material, as it floats in its frame.

They are something to get your head around. The American artist will coat two sheets of Mylar with crayon and then sandwich another sheet between them.

As he applies pressure to the topmost sheet, his ink adheres to both sides of the filling. So when he takes away the outer layers, it reveals an image he may or may not like.

Hard to say what Serra looks for. But on the evidence here it is: density, dirt, and a lack of gestalt forms. It’s as if he comes to the Courtauld Institute to put another full stop on art history.

The artist has hoped these works will leave you feeling hollow to the pit of your stomach. But what this blogger reports is a panicky failure to grasp the process at once, a frustration.

You want to pull apart these frames and see both sides. You want to see the process at work. You want to see the rejects. Despite the transparency of his materials, the mystery is increased.

*According to a fine catalogue essay by Barnaby Wright, which also has interesting things to say about Cezanne’s influence on Serra.

Read on: Time Out saw more menace than mystery in the show. Jonathan Jones in the Guardian likens the work to a black sun.

Richard Serra: Drawings for the Courtauld can be seen at The Courtauld Gallery, London, until 12 January 2014

Found Objects 05/11/13

Apologies for sporadic posting of late, anyhow I’m back on the trail:

  • It’s the “art find of the century” (consequently the best Found Object ever). Hyperallergic reports on the discovery of 1,500 degenerate art works in the flat of an eightysomething hoarder
  • Mordovia sounds like the complete opposite of a holiday destination. BBC News explores the worrying whereabouts of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova from Pussy Riot (h/t @kristoncapps)
  • Pedro Velez (@PDRVelez) calls this a universal MUST READ. Critic Philip Kennicott and artist Alex Rivera debate the usefulness of the term Latino in any discussion on art
  • Here’s a #longread grizzly enough to keep your attention to the very end. NY Times reports on football related ultra-violence in Brazil
  • Robert Atkins does an invaluable service compiling dictionaries of art speak. But Robin Cembalest does an even more sterling job picking the least ignorable terms
  • It is fair to say that artist Ron Throop doesn’t care much for artist Robert Zimmerman. Much worse than going electric, Dylan is still making paintings
  • Only up until Nov 8th: sit back and endure a 50 minute film by Ryan Trecartin (as seen in Venice this year). Hysterical, in all senses.
  • Since Tapas is for sharing, perhaps we can get away with this slick presentation on Spanish food design. A feast for the eyes, etc
  • These Impressionist Zombies are turning up late for Halloween, but you won’t want to miss them if you haven’t already checked out Animal NY
  • Remember remember this day in November. Since it’s bonfire night, I’m linking to an appropriate ditty from Magic Markers. Catchy.

Alex Hoda, Schliere (Streak), 2012

alex hoda 2

This sculpture makes a meal of a piece of gum. It may be marble, but it was once a remnant piece of a habit-forming chew. And now it is the size of a torso.

Visitors may be struck at the muscularity, which marble will always suggest. There is a body trapped in here, perhaps a Michaelangelesque dying slave.

These sinews may be rock hard. But you may still want to chew over the results of this fleshy piece of work, at the risk of breaking a tooth.

The stone comes from the maestro’s onetime favourite quarry at Carrara in Tuscany. I was told it has been chiselled with high pressure water from a 3D map scaled to 0.1 of a micron.

Were the artist to use said technology to render a figure from myth, it might be horribly ernest. Gum reassures us that he is insouciant enough to make contemporary art.

But we can still admire the stone along with the concept. The veins and luminosity are just beautiful. You want to stroke it, but isn’t chewed gum as tactile as it is repellent.

This piece has been splatted on the wall, as if the classical world never happened. Certainly, machine technologies have cut all the traditional craftsmanship out of the equation.

Gum may seem too ephemeral for a lasting statement. But evidence suggests we have been chewing bark, etc, for 5,000 years: a pillar of civilisation. More ancient than the Ancient World.

Schliere (Streak) can be seen in Alex Hoda: D-Construction at Edel Assanti, London, until 26 October 2013.