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.”
For those who don’t already know, Aston Villa FC are an underperforming English football team from the West Midlands. It might not be common knowledge in the wider art world.
Three artists staged a gallery event last Saturday: Bartlett, Selmes and Roberts. We’ll drop the first names, in the spirit of football. Because all support ‘the Villa’.
And all three wore the team’s claret and blue shirts and in doing so took on a radical (or alarming) non-art look. They didn’t even look like performance artists. It was perhaps anti-anti art.
The terrace vibe was helped along by an atmospheric loop of crowd noise: grown men professing their loyalty to this historic club and its players through the medium of chant.
Meanwhile, the ‘art’ was a collection of doctored pages ripped from matchday programmes and merchandise catalogues. A 90-minute projection showed AVFC demolish Birmingham City 5-1.
All of the above was fiendishly parochial. Players who had been gods in their time, were reduced to the status of an in joke. Was this about the idiocy of football or the selective ignorance of art?
There were also beers. There always are at openings. But these were an assortment of different brews, with each one themed around a first team star. This blogger opted for a Darren Bent lager.
Another attraction was the Lambert Out campaign, by which Bartlett attempted to drum out the club’s under fire manager by handing samizdat posters to bemused gallery folk.
If you like football, the whole thing was a total hoot. But what many overlook, and which you could have learned at this show, is that the most interesting things happen off the pitch.
What to make of the current prime minister David Cameron and heir to the throne Prince William? Both claim to be lifelong Villa fans, to Bartlett’s horror. It’s a surreal carnival.
Art’s perspective on football may be as narrow as football’s perspective on art, but both worlds could surely learn from one another. You will, for example, find art at football grounds.
Portman Road is the stadium for my team de choix; on a plinth outside is a statue of former manager Bobby Robson. It is made by Ipswich fan and sculptor Sean Hedges-Quinn.
Home fans arrange to meet by this artwork. They pose for photos here, and roundly approve of this tribute to a local legend. One presumes they even admire the likeness. No soul searching here.
Just be warned. Football art cuts both ways. This blogger once got a text from a friend who saw fans from another club urinating on the likeness of our hero; Robson died of cancer five years ago.
That’s a pretty direct critique, which this blogger could only dream of emulating. Art people might still piss all over your latest show, only with the ambivalent gift of metaphor.
Work Programme 71 took place on Saturday November 15 2014 at Community Arts Centre, Brighton. See gallery Facebook page for future events.
At a point of maximal chaos, the objects in this sculpture hang together and you feel you could take your finger off the pause button and return this scene to order.
The tableau is composed of ‘junk’, but white paint gives it a wintry appearance, akin to a seasonal shop window, and perhaps one dressed by an anarchist.
Look closer and you will see a cash till, caught mid air, cash drawer gaping, empty. As a nation of shopkeepers, this is an attack on all we hold dear.
But look it’s okay. The whole thing is kept within a theatrical frame. Despite a lack of glass or limits, there is a notional vitrine, nodding to blue chip art-mongers like Hirst and Koons.
Perhaps following in the footsteps of the former organiser of Freeze, Dickson has taken on a vast space in Circus Street, and for a solo show no less.
Hence she demonstrates a youthful talent for wrangling planning applications and funding bids. She has overcome a mountain of paperwork along with a mountain of junk.
Most of the found objects used here are obsolete, a landline phone, a cassette player. They are perhaps fossilised. But fossils don’t get airborne like this.
I want to say it is rare for explosions to turn rooms like this upside down here in Brighton. Yet in 1984, the whole country was rocked by a bomb in the Brighton Grand Hotel.
But this was six years before Dickson was even born. So one can only guess at whatever ash-covered interiors might have inspired this work. Strangely beautiful, there are plenty of them.
Junk is Beautiful can be found in Circus Street, Brighton, until November 21. See Facebook page for opening times.
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.
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.
Shot with minimal and remote means, Episode III is an uncinematic film in which the most stunning aspect of the production is the artist’s radical cynicism.
Martens oscillates between western messiah and unsentimental doom-monger as he gives advice, hope and (it seems) no assistance to villagers and plantation workers in Congo.
And yet his apparent cruelty has a critical function; he doesn’t flinch from demonstrating to his subjects, and to us, the pitiless reality of the global system in which they’re caught.
In one scene, he trains up a group of village photographers to shoot malnourished kids. But inevitably, they have no access to the market and fail to land the $50 per shot he promised.
This Dutch artist never flinches: not from showing children eating mice; nor from showing a flyblown corpse; nor from showing the anal sores of a young malnourished girl.
News commissioners would find this in very bad taste. But we know that the real bad taste is shown by the plantation owners buying arty black and white shots of their poor employees.
Martens uses neon – in invisible and knowing quote marks – to create a vast hoarding for his sub Saharan adventure: ‘Enjoy poverty,’ it reads, the word ‘please’ winking on and off.
After firing this up with a generator, we at least enjoy the least unhappy scene in the 90 minute film, as a host of children cheer and a party breaks out among local villagers.
The author of this film is unsparing of his subjects, sticking to the line they will always be poor so they may as well enjoy it; but he is equally hard on himself.
Towards the end of the film he meditates on the vanity which has brought him all the way to the war torn jungle to make a film which, as he must know, will further his career.
Nevertheless, he proves his case that poverty is a resource. “Experiencing your poverty makes me a better person,” he tells a group of prematurely aging paupers. They actually applaud him.
So there exists spiritual capital as well as economic capital. But this is something we have run short of in the West. Big Issue sellers, dare one say, just don’t have the requisite soulfulness.
Episode III can be seen in Chapter, Cardiff, as part of Artes Mundi 6.
It would be difficult to deliver a spoiler for Continuity. Omer Fast’s looping 40 minute film has no clear narrative arc and offers few clues about the mystery at its core.
All we know is that the same middle-aged German couple pick up three different servicemen from a rural rail station, and take him home for a spot of psychodrama.
It could be they are call boys. It could be a case of sliding doors. It could be Brechtian exposition. Or it could be that the entire episode is the product of a bereaved mother’s fevered mind.
What’s really compelling about the film is that, despite the uniforms, there is difference within this repetition. Youth is one of the only things these soldiers have in common.
Their reunions are pretty intense affairs. The couple have license to touch, chide and even climb into bed with these young men (the mother). In fact the whole set up is uncomfortably oedipal.
You could write it off as kinky middle class role play, were it not that the ‘returning soldiers’ bring genuine trauma and a cast of unwanted ghosts back to this bourgeois home.
The couple cannot escape the realities of war. It seems they try to drive away from the conflict. But they find a camel, and worse, in the middle of their local forest.
Fast’s film is full of hallucinations, along with the doubling effect which comes from an actors playing actors. The war for this artist appears to be an enduring source of strangeness. With no resolution.
Continuity can be seen at Artes Mundi 6 until 22 February 2015.
The real underwater world has already exercised its independence from the work of Simon Faithfull. REEF was fully working for six days, after which he lost transmission.
But there is no going back. The artist did manage to burn and sink a 32-tonne ship. He did manage to salvage nearly a week’s video feed from five cameras. A partial success then.
If anyone dives, the ship is in Weymouth Bay. A supporting film reveals there’s already a conger eel living in the wheel house, so watch out. We won’t be seeing that any time soon in the gallery.
What we can experience is a cavernous darkness and a resonant tidal throb by which it seems the entire former fishing chapel of Fabrica in Brighton has been sunk for this.
A strange cargo of monitors glows with pre-recorded footage. And one has to look up, as if to the surface of the waves, to watch a film of the 32 tonne ship as smoke billows and waters flood in.
But despite the temptations of the deep (the temptations to read this piece as a comment on anything from the human condition to the eternal unknowable), we mightn’t go there.
REEF could simply be about itself: “The thing I came for:/the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth” as poet Adrienne Rich once described a diving experience.*
So . . . Fabrica, Photoworks, Musée des Beaux Arts (Calais), and FRAC Basse Normandie (Caen) have joined forces to provide a possibly sunken institutional structure.
Wreck to Reef, Art AV, Field Broadcast, O’Three, Precision Energetics, Dorset County Council, Weber Industries, Ringstead Caravans and Quest Underwater Services provide the ecosystem.
To see so many bodies pulling together to produce an act of conservation, let alone an epic piece of public art, is as inspiring as any number of visits to an aquarium.
And there is a precedent for such a comparison. In his diaries, Paul Klee records a “refreshingly bizarre” visit to an aquarium, where an octopus reminded him of an attentive art dealer.**
*Adrienne Rich, Diving into the Wreck, reproduced in Aquatopia, published by Nottingham Contemporary and Tate in 2013
**cited in Otherworldly, an essay by J Malcolm Shick, in Underwater, published by Towner Gallery in 2010.
REEF can be seen at Fabrica, Brighton, until November 23 2014.
The years of lead (or anni di piombo for you Italian speakers) lasted from the late 60s to the early 80s. Thanks to festivals in Venice and the anni di amore are still in full effect.
As a result this is one of the only exhibitions where you can reasonably expect to find photos of the Hollywood A-list alongside those of victims of social unrest. Dead victims, that is.
1976 may be some time ago. But the fate of Vittorio Occorsio still provokes dismay. You can see his last photo, a body falling from a car, blood making rivulets on the asphalt.
The deceased was a magistrate, and since his day job entailed chasing up links between a black Masonic Lodge and Italian neofascists, it’s not hard to guess where to lay the blame.
Suffice to say, whatever your leanings, the press photos of the aftermath will appall you. The blood is still wet and the covert struggle between political extremes is still fresh.
Nearby are press photos of the unfortunate Aldo Moro. The Red Brigade killed five bodyguards in order to kidnap this former prime minister, head of the Italian Christian Democrats.
After 55 days imprisonment, he too was killed. But the evidence is not as graphic. The facts of his death are not as alarming as those of the brave magistrate. And this is an interesting problem.
Since the Terrorism Act of 2006, even the attempt to justify the way of the gun is a criminal act. So far be it from me to explore the strange nostalgia which so many of these agency snaps provoke.
But Italy in the 1970s really was a land of extremes. Of the many photographed demonstrations in this show, there are various mobs agitating for divorce, the monarchy and a ban on French wine.
The situation appears volatile. There may be as many demonstrations in our day and age, but the many millions who in February 2003 marched against war in Iraq barely caused a ripple.
If we can draw a conclusion from that, we might say there is no hope and no alternative. And yet in the years of lead, you had more factions running about left and right than in a Pynchon novel.
But the presentation of terrorists alongside filmstars here in a museum library is tantalising. The path of armed resistance is not so far from the stuff of movies. Can we even get away with seeing that?
Amore e Piombo: The Photography of Extremes in 1970s Italy is at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery until 2 November 2014.
Hard not to like an artist who is unafraid to quote his dad in an interview (as you can see Kjartansson does in the footage above): “It’s sad and beautiful to be a human being”.
There’s also an honesty about his subject matter in The Visitors. It’s not about poverty, war or global pandemic. He’s Icelandic, after all. They are not supposed to have such things.
And lastly, he took the title for this nine-channel, 64-minute video installation from an album by Swedish popsters Abba. True, everyone likes Abba. But not everyone will admit it.
To put The Visitors in a nutshell, it’s an hour long promo video in which many musicians, in many rooms of a bohemian mansion, play a single piece of overwhelming music.
The song is minimal and repetitive and the most repeated line, “Once again I fall into my feminine ways”, is from a poem by the artist’s ex-wife Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir.
In Iceland they do at least have divorce and Kjartansson made this piece to reflect, as he says, a period of his life coming to an end. It is indeed a ‘sad and beautiful’ artwork.
A choir is gathered on the veranda and as the piece crescendoes one resident sets off an ornamental cannon. It’s the 1812 Overture rewritten for some protracted marital strife.
The cast of The Visitors are friends of the artist, whose background is in the Reykjavík music scene. So it’s a heartwarming collaboration at odds with the desolate subject matter.
Music can hotwire the emotions, so you have to be wary with a piece like this. But tingling hairs on the back of the neck aside, this emotionally awkward installation gives you something portable.
In the exemplary way these musicians pull together The Visitors offers a slice of fragile utopia. It explores similar territory to a film by Johanna Billing, another Scandinavian music fan.
Her piece, You don’t love me yet (2003), borrows the look and feel of a charity record to present the performance of an overlooked Roky Erickson song by a Stockholm-based supergroup.
It’s worth a look. Both works demonstrate that optimism and pessimism are often hard to tease apart, and that this state of ambivalence might be something eternal in the human condition.
The Visitors can be seen at Ffotogallery in Penarth, Cardiff, until 22 February 2015, as part of artes mundi 6. It is also in Museo Guggenheim, Bilbao until 2 November 2014.
Those interested in this piece might also enjoy this review from Art in America, written in April last year.
The fifty donkeys were cute and the labels were amusing. But it was the third element in this piece which packed a real punch. A photo of a real donkey behind barbed wire in a town square.
It was a scene was staged by Nazi authorities in 1933 as a warning not to be stubborn and buy from Jewish shopkeepers. Or you too might end up in a concentration camp.
This shot was printed in a German newspaper in 1933, but for the purposes of this show it’s been blown up and displayed as forensic evidence on a lightbox.
Suddenly the donkey becomes the most noble of beasts. And the talent of these stuffed revolutionaries, the best examples of humanity, from Benjamin to Biko, becomes intransigence.
In the catalogue to artes mundi 6, essayist Natasa Ilic reveals that Bertold Brecht worked with a small wooden donkey on his desk to remind him of a critical section of his audience.
Hardworking donkeys are the salt of the earth. Which may be why, in the US political system, donkeys are democratic. It takes a tough hide, rather than a sharp mind, to make revolution.
The burden of so many of these cuddly toys, or the figures whose name they share, is to have had endured persecution, torture and in many cases execution.
As Manca Bajec points out on culture magazine B-turn, to see this piece is to realise that donkeys are unlikely heroes. Move aside Winnie, Eeyore’s in town.
Once again Ilic highlights something interesting. At least one philosopher has linked the spirit of revolution in the early 21st century to depression, withdrawal and exhaustion.
In the absence of any horizon of positive change, we must all learn from the donkey how to endure. Our only comfort, in the austerity age, might be a soft toy and a memory.
Just by way of an interesting aside: the German authorities may have overlooked the story of Balaam and the ass when they staged their 1930s photo op.
Balaam was of course a prophet on his way to curse the Israelites when the Angel of the Lord came down to turn him back and indeed destroy him.
His equine steed, a donkey as you will know, was granted sight of the Angel. And cut a long story short, Balaam ended up blessing the Jewish homeland. Spooky or what?
Iveković is one of nine shortlisted artists in artes mundi 6. The exhibition runs in various venues in Cardiff until 22 February 2015.