Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Automated Tal R Machine


Another dusty thing that might brighten a dull blind date or queue at the tanning salon.


Tal R's new paintings at Camden Arts Centre use seven unmixed colours - pink, green, orange, white, brown and black - on a standardised scale of 8 foot by 8 foot. That this description recalls the careful allocation (and the colour scheme) of chips or pieces at the start of a board game, the equal laying-out of cards, links his work with a peculiarity of contemporary painting: self-regulation as artistic gambit. This ludic approach to decision-making informs the work of several contemporary painters to the extent that it is a defining characteristic of painting now. Like Tal R, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Dana Schutz and Tomma Abst treat the painted surface as a boardgame bound by a specific set of rules.  Yet these imposed restrictions aren't those of (say) Robert Ryman's monochromatic canvases; rather, they speak to an absurdist specificity that aims to debunk the lofty purism of modernist abstraction.

Tal R's paintings filter the CoBrA legacy of his adopted Danish homeland through the thrawn logic of the obsessive compulsive. There is something in the fat lumps of paint, larded on with a loaded brush, or sitting wormily on the surface, of Karel Appel or Asger Jorn, the trademark framed compositions of Pierre Alechinsky, his woozy way with a line. Like Alechinsky, Tal R invents a language of apparently nonsensical hieroglyphs: in Fugle og frugter, cartoon bat wings flap across a flattened space; lobed discs like rabbit heads cascade downwards. In other works, childlike perspectival tricks (clumsily rendered buildings receding to a pinprick) and dismembered cartoon anatomies (googly eyes and wagging tongues) cram into the prescribed dimensions of the canvas, like a lift before the doors slide shut.

Unlike Philip Guston, even in whose late-60s figurative work a kind of refined compositional principle still reigned, Tal R rails against pictorial niceties; he has a sort of horor vacui that compels him to cluster his paintings with piled-up imagery that crowds the horizon (he has described his own work in terms of Kolbojnik, a Hebrew term for the discarded leftovers after a meal). Paintings are cobbled together like makeshift barricades, many of them triple-layered with dog-eared canvas. The thickness of the paint sometimes resembles woven rope, like cack-handed tapestry; at an angle, the paintings have the heaving, pitching surface of a roiling ocean, bulging out from the wall in high relief, as though desperate to become objects. Some have, and sit on coloured pedestals on the gallery floor, like games waiting to be played.

Yet it all looks jokey, old masters made out of old food. Venetian gondolas, crapped out in lines of squeezed paint, wheel around a canal of smudged paint, a caca Canaletto; a scribbled Hitler furrows his brow as he paints a wild abstraction, oblivious to the comically heavy-framed paintings above him. What saves these paintings from a disinterested knowingness that characterises so many of Guston’s immediate heirs is Tal R's evident joyousness in the game of his own making, the extrovert compulsion to sustain visual interest despite his self-imposed limitation. Many of the paintings recall the stage set-ups of theatrical illusion, and it's partly in the spirit of the amateur magician that Tal R engages with the art of the past. In Night is no Black, for example, the artist sets a crowd of owlish heads in receding scale beside a wonkily receding black road. The mind reads it as perspectival, but it could be a group of variously sized owlish heads hovering around a black pyramid. Like Guston's late images of his wife Musa, gazing mutely from under the bedclothes, their eyes gaze out, unmoved, indifferent. The apparently endless sets of eyes and heads, whose combinations of unmodulated pinks, browns, yellows and whites (components of painted flesh, like a Rubens nude run in reverse) seemingly never recur, create a bouncy visual rhythm that bumps the eye around the surface like a pinball. The pyramid or road is painted in the thick stabby impasto of Clyfford Still, and like Still Tal R locates his painting somewhere in that no-man's-land where a mark flickers between nothing and something.

Yet to ignore the darker aspects of this incessantly inventive game playing is to take the artist too much at his word. To introduce a conceptual regulation into painting is to reiterate painting's ability to articulate complex ideas, despite its easy accommodation within the inherited visual repertoire of colours on a canvas. Hüsker Dü sets a series of fat, arrow-headed trees against a stark blackness around a yellow pyramidal/recessional central shape (compositional effects repeat from painting to painting: frames, pyramids, and horizontal orange strips like emergency barriers or blank subtitles). Totemic and monumental, the shape rears upwards, surmounted by a blank slit of an eye, a horror film McGuffin in a fairytale forest, or recedes into space, a yellow brick road with an unhappy ending.

Like Guston, Tal R negotiates the history of horror through the language of slapstick and pratfalls. The crushed interior spaces and ambiguous flatness of these paintings, as well as their garish unmodulated palette, are the products of an imagination grown on Itchy and Scratchy, Atari and the Brothers Grimm attempting to articulate the nameless horror of twentieth-century suffering. Name, Year, and Departure depicts two monolithic pink and yellow arrow-shaped arches pointing upwards with ferocious dynamism against a sky filled with cartoon clouds of brown and green smoke. It’s an image that declares itself with such force that it precludes the need for verbal translation, having reached a kind of perfect pitch whereby its ideas can only be explained on its own terms, with the tightly-knotted cause and effect of a dream held in the head.

Home on the Singe


Here's an old, scrappy thing I wrote that might entertain, if only for its fluctuating font sizes.

A monkey in a three-cornered hat and vast red coat sits cross-legged at an easel. This might be the start of a joke. In walks a rabbit dressed as a nurse. It actually is a sort of joke: an 18th century painting of a painter as a monkey. Trappings of the struggling artist surround him for satirical effect: a dog-eared portfolio leans against a table with an upturned wineglass and armless plaster cupid. A huge terracotta jug sits on the floor, perhaps recently drained of wine. The 18th century audience for the painting gets the joke, does a little 18th century chuckle, and moves on to something big with flying toddlers. It’s the 1740 Paris Salon, and Jean-Simeon Chardin’s The Monkey as Painter looks like an oddball choice for this slowhand arranger of dusty peaches and roadkill. What was he thinking?, they say in French in the carriages home.

By Chardin’s time, monkeys were a well-established trope in Western painting, with numerous cameo appearances in Renaissance art, particularly as allegorical symbols of unbridled sensuality. Dutch Golden Age painters depicted monkeys as parodic alter egos of human beings. David Teniers cornered the market in whimsical depictions of monkeys and cats dressed in contemporary garb that served as moral reminders of the dangers of overindulgence and excessive card-playing.

 Monkeys represented an exotic world made possible by tenaciously defended trade routes, and were associated – and often visually entwined with – the 18th century fascination with Chinese visual culture (chinoiserie). They were both a reminder of, and a moral barometer for, the ‘sophistication’ of Western capitalist culture.

Conversely, from the early 16th century, monkeys symbolised what was increasingly devalued in art: ‘mere skill’. ‘Apeing nature’ – once-removed imitation of reality, like a chimp in a bowler hat smoking a cigar – was increasingly possible with the ascendance of a highly trained apprentice class, and it was undoubtedly in the interests of successful artists to distance themselves from their technically skilled, but conceptually pedestrian competitors, rising up from below. This implicit connection between the monkey and the artist became explicit in the genre of singerie – literally, depictions of artists as monkeys – visual shorthand for the mimetic role of the artist or poet. It’s not surprising that the self-lacerating Michelangelo carved, at the base of his unfinished Dying Slave, a monkey curled around the calf of the figure: a self-portrait of the artist as ape of nature.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that the period that saw the rise of the notoriously conservative French Academy of Painting saw the resurgence of such a pointedly satirical genre. Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps’ The Experts of 1837 sets a grave group of monkey connoisseurs in tailcoats around a Romantic landscape painting in an artist’s studio; they assess its value with absurd seriousness. The natural sobriety of the simian face is exploited to obvious comic effect: the French Academy had rejected a number of the artist’s earlier works, ergo this somewhat aggrieved satiric revenge. (It’s a distant relative of Coolidge’s Dogs Playing Pool series of the early 1900s, a familiar sight for frequenters of provincial pubs).

 Yet Decamps’ The Monkey Painter of four years earlier is a far less broad and more affective handling of the theme. Here, the monkey sits, brush in hand, on the floor of his studio, dressed in the garb of the gentleman painter: gold-trimmed dark velvet, with feathered velvet hat on the floor beside him. Yet his painting leans not on an easel but against a wooden chest emblazoned with the artist’s name. A Ming vase (surely a nod to chinoiserie) sits behind it, and a pistol hangs on the chalky wall, two objects associated with gentlemanly sophistication impossible to handle with those clumsy, inward-curling monkey fingers.

 Looking back at the painting he’s working on (a pale, scratchy blue with thin flecks of yellow), it’s possible to see in it a visual echo of Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold from 1877, the focus of the first of many public debates about the definition of art. Whistler had sued John Ruskin over his claims that the artist had ‘[flung] a pot of paint in the public’s face’, and the resulting trial (Whister won) set in motion associations between modern art and willful shock that retain their currency to this day. Is Decamps’ monkey painter a harbinger of a modern notion of what an artist is? There’s a telling contrast between Decamps’ painting of the monkey and the painting within the painting. While Decamps sets up a reserved, even ironic distance from his subject (that fluttery, shimmery brushwork; those careful points of light), the monkey painter daubs on his midnight blues with a furrow-browed seriousness recalling Jackson Pollock in full swing.

By contrast, Watteau’s The Monkey Sculptor (1710) depicts a scraggly monkey in archetypal boho garb, hammer arm swung back madly, aiming his chisel at the neck of a visibly petrified classical bust - the artist as degenerate portrait to his art's Dorian Gray.  Look at the shimmering creaminess of the bust, like one of the painter's own works, against the wicked gleam of the sculptor's butcher-like tools, and you get some sense of what this oddball genre meant to Watteau. And of what it means to modern art too: something in the lumpen gravity of the monkey painter and his too-large, awkward tools (look at that hammer, like a caveman's club) predicts Philip Guston's late 60s self-portraits as Klansman, wielding a fistful of sausagey paintbrushes, contained within a studio too small to move in. Watteau's work echoes, too, within Paul McCarthy's 1995 video Painter, in which the artist, made up like an old-time Abstract Expressionist (de Kooning wig, sloppy smock, bulbous fingers and nose) conducts a kind of instructional video on action painting, slathering paint from giant paint tubes and hacking off a finger with a suspiciously Watteau-style cleaver.

 The paucity of singerie works, even in the best Rococo collections, bespeaks a particularly minor reputation. Its origin in decorative art, never an auspicious reason for inclusion in the Western canon, makes it more minor still. Yet it’s perhaps for that very reason – its propensity for whimsy over solemnity, its irreverent silliness – that singerie contains unexpected predictions of the clamour and chaos of modern art. It’s the rejection of heroic mythology that powered much of modernism’s iconoclastic energy, a rejection that necessarily entailed an interest in conventionally minor or overlooked practices.

Consider, for example, Matisse’s fascination with the abstract solutions offered by decorative art and its importance to ‘all over’ colour field painting of the 1950s, or synthetic cubism’s engagement with the minutiae of modern living and its resonances in 60s Pop. In its small way, singerie plays out dichotomies in art that allowed modernism to happen. Even Picabia, alongside Duchamp the most virulent iconoclast of them all, had his moment of singerie: his 1920 object Still Life: Portrait of Cezanne, Portrait of Rembrandt, Portrait of Renoir is a toy monkey nailed to a wooden board, tugging his tail suggestively between his legs. Not only is it a subversive claim that the Old Masters were simian onanists, it’s an assertion of the carnivalesque naughtiness of Dada, and its mad celebration of the discarded and tasteless.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Mansell Rivers to Cross


This is the text of a small piece I wrote for the memorial of Mansell Rivers-Bland, which will take place in Los Angeles at the end of this month. Mr Rivers-Bland was a master prop-maker (he worked on many episodes of Dr Who, making rubbery monsters) and arguable star of the 1989 film 'Elves', playing Nazi maniac Rubinkraur. Director Jeff Mandel will (I hope) be reading this out at the memorial, which sounds like something I may have dreamed. Here it is.

I only knew Mansell Rivers-Bland through his performance in ‘Elves’, which I watched upwards of thirty times between 1993 and 1995 (and intermittently since then, when the weather’s bad). My friends and I discovered ‘Elves’ in our local video store, Pegg’s, in rural England, and we were immediately hooked, forswearing the repeated, despairing demands of our female contemporaries in favour of sitting cross-legged in the dark in front of the VCR, playing, rewinding, quoting, replaying, and quoting some more while the tape rewound. As burgeoning connoisseurs of the early nineties horror genre, Mr Rivers-Bland was one of our stand-out performances in the film: a comic-book gruff-voiced Nazi in a knee-length leather jacket with a propensity for intoning ‘Heil Hitler’ before entering a room and a professional willingness to sweat when the intensity of the scene demanded it. He took it seriously, is the point, and he was eminently quotable. “You decided?” we’d say to each other, when one of us had declared that we’d spend the evening drinking cider in a field (again). “You decided NOSSSING!” Or, when we found that there wasn’t much space in the back of our friend’s car for us, our bags, and our cider, someone would inevitably say, “When zere is no more room in Hell…ze Elves shall walk ze earth!” In other words, I owe most of the successes and all of the failures of my late adolescence to Mr Rivers-Bland and his fellow cast members, director and crew. So: rest in peace, thank you, and Heil Hitler.


Monday, 1 June 2009

New! EmParisment

Another satisfied customer [above]

A new thing for your delight/disappointment is to be found by clicking here.