Since the days of King Cnut, few public figures can have had such an impossible relation with the sea. In the paintings of John Virtue the viewer finds themselves lost in the surf. But each work represents the most fleeting of moments, as waves break quicker than the hand can sketch.
And this artist’s hand makes hundreds of sketches. One of the focal points of his new exhibition at Towner is a cabinet some four metres long in which the drawings pile up, open book upon open book upon open book. In many cases you can see the blots made by incoming rain clouds.
That said, most of the works in the show are just as scaled-up as the cabinet. Three of the paintings here are almost six and a half metres long. All of the paintings are in black, white and a sparing grey. So many monumental works add up to a pretty overwhelming visual experience.
Virtue cuts a neat and compact figure, quite far removed from the wild man you might imagine was behind these epic nature paintings. Over a mineral water in the Eastbourne gallery he tells me more about his Sisyphean process and paradoxical practice.
The fleeting source material comes from the coast by his North Norfolk home. The artist lives near Blakeney Point, which, he tells me, is “very isolated, very bleak, very stormy in winter”. Once a week he walks the four and a quarter miles to and from the Point and will make hundreds of sketches.
But no matter how fast an experienced hand can draw, the sea is strangely cruel to artists. Virtue points out: “It changes faster than you speak. It changes all the time, not just from day to day but from second to second.” But the philosophical painter is quite content with this.
“It’s that quality of nothing and everything that’s so enthralling. It’s mesmeric,” he says. The elusive forms he calls a “perfect armature for developing all kinds of ideas, abstract ideas”. And indeed, if a hypothetical focus group saw these works out of the blue, they might conclude them to be abstract.
So, these wave studies are at the limits of figuration. “How can you do something topographical when you have people like Turner and Constable? That is a tradition that you have to work against,” he says. Landscape appears to be an alibi for Virtue rather than a rigid category.
At the same time he rejects the label of abstraction. “I’m not able to make it up,” he insists. “It just would not work, if I don’t have the compost, if I don’t have the drawings.” When asked about those heroic Ab Ex painters from the 20th century, Virtue points out they were often inspired by real world forms.
“I admire Pollock very much” says the artist, suggesting that between 1948 and 1950 the maverick US painter was working in a tradition of nature paintings. De Kooning, likewise, had a period during which he painted the landscapes near his Long Island home. But subject matter apart, Virtue is also very drawn to the physicality of painters like these, and Franz Kline.
“They seemed to be using the whole of their bodies on a great big scale, twice their body size,” he says, “And that can be used in what I’m doing because I work on a pretty big scale”.
Another influence on these monochromatic paintings is, perhaps unsurprisingly, zen calligraphy. Virtue has been drawn to this art form since early childhood, and remains fascinated by the difference between the tradition of the Western gaze and that of the Eastern glance.
“It’s about mobility,” he explains. “So I’m walking and drawing in a very high speed way. And yet I’m trying to make concrete the utterly ethereal, and I sense that in Zen calligraphy that’s exactly what they’re doing. Virtue marvels at the ability to make a single mark with up to nine changes of tone.
He sweeps a hand across the table to illustrate this and it becomes clear why gesture remains much more important to Virtue than verisimilitude. “There’s something about…making something with your hands,” he tells me. “I don’t respond to photography.”
Photography and film might appear the more effective vehicles for capturing the sea. But Virtue is emphatic in his rejection of the camera: “It’s a mechanical device that prints on a two dimensional surface and the abstract marks – if you blow them up – signify what!?”
So perhaps walking long distances and making hundreds of rapid sketches demand more from one than simply choosing a shutter speed. Virtue is trying to capture a peripatetic event just as much as those individual waves.
”The ideas that are thrown up are extremely difficult to grasp,” he says, “Let alone convey them to an imaginary audience”. And yet you have to say, as you plunge into this roiling show on the South Coast, John Virtue has got control of the waters and could, you imagine, if he wanted, turn back that tide.
John Virtue: The Sea is at Towner Gallery, Eastbourne until April 11 2015. Interview written for Culture24.
For many on the Left, the Spanish Civil War may have been a somewhat romantic affair. But it soon turned into an epic disappointment. It was a disappointment on the scale of WWII.
Pallant House in Chichester is currently showing the first exhibition devoted to British artists during the Iberian conflict. It makes a good case that 1936-1939 was a dry run for 1939-1945.
Had the Republicans prevailed it would at least have given the two other European Axis powers something to chew on. As things stood, it merely gave them aerial bombing practice.
It is well documented that the losing side, that of the Last Great Cause, found themselves in a three-way struggle for power between communists, anarchists and Trotskyites.
But that for me is what gives this painting by Quentin Bell a moving sense of the ideal. The May Day banners are red, and that for now is all you need to know.
They move in a tidal swell. They move away from the artist and his audience. It is as if their progress is towards something that no one can yet see. It could be a new dawn. It could be a disaster.
You can count less than 20 demonstrators, but the effect is of many more. This atmospheric painting throbs with crowd appeal. It appeals to our sense of strength in numbers.
Yet as in so many grand ventures, not everyone makes it out alive. Quentin’s brother Julian joined up as an ambulance driver and was killed just days after this painting was made.
And so a promising young poet, a son of a painter and a critic (Vanessa and Clive Bell) was killed mending potholes near Madrid. The horror of it gave his mother a breakdown.
So in that sense May Day Procession augur’s badly. Indeed the whole war augured ill. And yet the power of this image – and of the many banners and posters in the show – is undiminished.
There must be something about a crowd like this that Power and/or Money finds less and less able to tolerate. Look back at the future in 1937; there’s not a riot squad in sight.
Conscience and Conflict can be seen at Pallant House, Chichester, until 15 February 2015, then from 7 March to 7 June at the Laing Gallery, Newcastle.
Of course, buildings cannot have souls. We are cannot even install them in computers. But a new 3D film by six directors, which began life as a TV series, sets out to demonstrate the improbable.
You have to admit these are personable buildings. The roving cameras are accompanied by first person voiceovers which bring us into the action as effectively as our stereoscopic specs.
It should be noted, this film got a really bad review in the Guardian, where architecture and design critic Oliver Wainwright found it “sickly sweet . . . syrupy schmaltz”.
And while it is true that some of these buildings come off better than others, and that the results are an immersive advertisement for each given destination, there’s plenty of visual jouissance.
The star of the show, the leading architectural cast member, is Halden Prison in Norway. Here the film captures all the humanity you could ever hope for from one of these institutions.
Sun shines on the basketball court, marital quarters are tastefully decked out, the prison shop is well stocked, even the isolation cells look cool and, despite the dirty protest, somewhat inviting.
Wenders himself films the Berlin Philharmonic, a crazy structure based on overlapping pentagons. Yes, the praise is gushing. But this is a real life sonic cathedral, so what’s not to love?
Perhaps for those already familiar with, say, the National Library of Russia or the Salk Institute, this film is a bit of a yawn. Director Robert Redford maybe overdoes the time lapse photography.
Indeed, the thirty or so minutes spent in the company of the Centre Pompidou in Paris were none too interesting. Having spent a few days riding those escalators, something more was hoped for.
And yet the film which gave the least info was also the most dynamic. Director Margreth Olin chose to focus on the performers who use the Oslo Opera House, allowing the building itself to also dance.
At 165 minutes, this cathedral service is a lengthy one. It drags at times. But why should action movies have the monopoly on 3D? Architecture, no matter how sugar coated, is surely as exciting.
Cathedrals of Culture was screened at the Duke of York’s Picturehouse, Brighton, on 30 December 2014.
Happy New Year to readers everywhere. Here’s the first of a monthly round up of shows in (usually) public sector spaces around the UK. So, if you’re in Britain in January 2015, you won’t want to miss…
Grace Schwindt: Only a Free Individual Can Create a Free Society, Site Gallery, Sheffield, 10 Jan – 28 Feb. If your experience of taxi drivers is all Magic FM and reactionary politics, you’ll be pleasantly surprised here. Schwindt interviews a German taxi driver, and former 60s/70s radical, for a filmic 90 minute trip.
Rights of Nature: Art and Ecology in the Americas, Nottingham Contemporary, 24 Jan to 15 Mar. Twenty pan-American artists bear witness to an environmental crisis with displays themed around the Amazon, the Andes, the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico. If Bolivia and Ecuador can give legal rights to Mother Nature, can we hope a wave of the future is building across the Atlantic?
Isabelle Cornaro: Paysage Avec Poussin/Témoins Oculaires, South London Gallery and Spike Island, Bristol, 24 Jan – 05 Apr/29 Mar. With training in the academic study of mannerism, Cornaro promises to demonstrate the way that art affects our perception. Resonant objects abound in a major installation at SLG and new works in the West Country. It’s a double header.
Self: Image and Identity, Turner Contemporary, Margate, 24 Jan – 10 May. As the gallery is already hinting, this exhibition could put the selfie phenomena in art historical perspective. Visitors can expect over 100 self-centred works, many from the National Portrait Gallery, from Sir Anthony van Dyck to Louise Bourgeois.
Ruth Ewan: Back to the Fields, Camden Arts Centre, London, 30 Jan – 29 Mar. In post-revolutionary France they enjoyed post-revolutionary time. London-based artist Ewan returns to her interest in the decimal clock and calendar with a major installation which brings together 365 seasonal objects with republican leanings.
Agree? Disagree? Seen something which criticismism has missed. Please feel free, as ever, to leave a comment.
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.
There are two Barbicans, we soon learn on a tour of the East London council estate: the multi-purpose arts centre; and the mysterious residential units which sell for seven figure sums.
Most visits to the former involve passing beneath the latter. But there is so much more to this brutalist landmark and unlikely home than the short journey from tube stop to gallery.
But if you feel the towers and apartments remain distant and inaccessible, this is no doubt part of the masterplan. Barbican, as etym fans will know, comes from old French and means outer fort.
In practice what this means is vertiginous high rises, playful arrow slit apertures on some of the streets in the sky, and endless vistas of concrete much of it with an hallmark distressed finish.
Our knowledgeable guide surrprises us by revealing that this extensive finish was achieved by hand, as a team of brave workers with pneumatic drills hung from the sides of the 42-storey building.
In a 90-minute circuit of the complex, there are plenty more revelations. The Barbican has plentiful green space, tennis courts and a five-a-side pitch. The water features proliferate.
So the famous concrete appears balanced by greenery and a sense of play. It is pointed out that a semi-circular motif ties fountains to benches to penthouse duplexes and all points in between.
This is just one of a few subtle details which make the whole site cohere. The eye takes them in, but they can fly under the radar, so it is a real joy to have them pointed out.
As you might have guessed, the approach to function and form is not entirely modernist. A tower built to house RSC stage sets above the stage of the theatre is disguised by a conservatory full of plants.
Meanwhile the tower blocks appear to rotate as you move around. The sharp triangular footprints turn their four bedroom apartments to face in different directions.
Upon their first appearance, not so long after WWII, they would have been dominant features of the London skyline. But from down here they still seem impossibly high and dynamic.
Other weird components to this island of unreality in the City include a medieval church, namely St Giles-without-Cripplegate and a police station which keeps office hours.
A tour lasts 90 minutes; it flies by; and it is recommended for anyone with rampant curiosity about the lifestyles of Britain’s best-heeled council tenants. If only they needed a blogger in residence.
There are daily tours of Barbican Estate between now and February 26. See the arts centre website for booking details.
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.
Nothing like the Turner Prize to deliver half an hour of overwrought excitement. Not that the writer of this blog was there. He was wound like a spring on the sofa, as the reportage photo above implies.
But how close can you get to this Prize? Like the man in a Kafka parable, you wait and wait all year in the knowledge there are doorkeepers beyond the doorkeepers. You are Before the Law.
On the one occasion this writer did make it to the ceremony, at BALTIC in 2011, he somehow took a wrong turn and ended up in a bar at the venue, still watching the whole thing on TV.
British television’s engagement with contemporary art is so minimal that Channel 4’s coverage of the Turner is the equivalent of watching an entire football season in one short burst.
Sorry to those offended by the sports analogy, but that’s just of what sofas and televisions put one in mind. Blame Tate for establishing the art world’s annual moment as a lucrative competition.
Duncan Campbell won. And for many in the room surely Gore Vidal’s cynical comment on envy surely rang true: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” Still, a worthy winner.
Looking back at a piece written for Culture24 in early September, your sofa correspondent appears to have predicted the result. But only in the most throwaway of fashions, almost by accident.
It could still be maintained that Ciara Phillips would have made a more interesting winner. Thanks to her use of collaboration, she might also have made a more approachable one.
In Kafka’s brief fable, the supplicant for admittance to the law is a “countryman” but not necessarily a regional blogger. He spends the rest of his life waiting for the doorkeeper to let him through.
Before he dies, he goes blind: “Yet in his darkness he is now aware of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the law.” Just the television crew lights, perhaps.
Let’s get a comparison out of the way. Art is like an infinite game of chess. An artwork will reorient all the pieces round it, and inevitably change the game.
But chess fans visiting Beswick in East Manchester may be frustrated by the inscrutable configuration of pieces in Ryan Gander’s third major artwork for the public.
It’s a checkmate, apparently. But with no board, no black or white, the three silver sculptures just gaze back at you and the scenes of local regeneration. An aerial view could help.
You might say art in the public realm should always be like this: a baffling win move played by a giant talent (or sometimes a giant ego), and something to bring a shine to its location.
The sawn off verticality of each figurine also draws your attention to the skies above and they seem to channel the elements. A glowering horizon rendered them ominous this week.
But it’s clear that when the sun shines, Dad’s Halo Effect (as the piece is called) will be dazzling. Gander has said he nicked the idea from his father, which is only partly true.
It was Gander Sr, who worked for General Motors, told his son about the aesthetic appeal of the steering mechanism in a Bedford Truck, which the artwork now echoes.
Beswick is a former industrial zone. You could say this piece reaches into the past, grabs some of the mechanical entrails, and repurposes them with a bit of spit and polish, plus a tall tale.
Unlike the pieces in a real chess game you are encouraged to get hands on with this community focal point. There’s a VI Form college nearby, so there could be no touchmove rule.
Though perhaps this post should have begun with the French phrase, J’adoube, as if a chess player was about to warn an opponent that s/he’s about to make contact with a piece.
This makes no pretence to tidy up the board. The work is conceptually neat. But writing about a piece or three of art is usually the only way you can pick it up and handle it, whatever the size.
Dad’s Halo Effect can be seen at Beswick Community Hub, a joint regeneration development between Manchester City Council and Manchester City Football Club. See below for more football art.
JCHP are a two-man art ‘team’, who have been accused of ‘nigh-on psychotic self-analysis’ (in their own catalogue to boot*). So where to start and what to add?
First, it’s a relief that Jeffrey Charles Henry Peacock are in fact hard grafting artists Dave Smith and Thom Winterburn. Thankfully, they’re not just one horrendously posh bloke.
One of their chief interests is artistic labour. They spend a lot of time making reproductions of historic prints which they have in the past given away or exhibited unfinished.
They have been opposed to conventional exhibiting. Yet both were gallerists before joining forces as art producers, albeit artists whose practice includes exhibition making.
But now they’ve opted for a suck-it-and-see approach with a single drawing on display in a small but critical Brighton space, Neuefroth Kunstallle.
And they’ve gone all out to put their work on a notional pedestal. It is triple mounted and beautifully framed beneath spotlights. That’s some self-conscious over egging.
It might all be just good fun, were not the focus of all this attention being an 18th century print of a desperate prisoner: Sterne’s Captive by Joseph Wright of Derby.
Thus a Laurence Sterne novel, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, offers another frame (of reference) for this lugubrious and slavish copy.
Although in Sterne’s narrative the prisoner is released when guards realise he is the jester Yorick, a literary personage who would have seen the funny side of JCHP’s complex new artefact.
The artists put the seal on this exquisite work with the signatures of both the original artist and his engraver. Their own name appears below this, crisply embossed. The mediation is rich.
But since the exhibition is to be considered as a whole, it’s worth mentioning the dense sheet of A3 text which accompanies the copy, of the print, of the satirical novel.
Here is where the psychotic self-analysis comes into play. The notes are as prevaricating as Sterne himself could be. The language is formal, florid, only occasionally funny.
But for a minute the recollection of JCHP as a some anachronistic dandy comes strutting back into mind. And we might be stuck with the posh bloke. That after all is the art world for you.
The show can be viewed by appointment until December 13 or during a public viewing on Saturday 29 November 2014. See Neuefroth Kunsthalle.
* See Richard Birkett’s essay in Critical Decor: A Short Organum for Exhibition