Monday, 30 August 2010

Public Art is Rubbish. Read On.

Public art is rubbish. Starting from that premise is the best possible pre-emptive strike against disappointment. Don’t expect public art to be any good and you’ll be surprised when it actually is. Which it never is. Which it sometimes is. Public art needs its own completely separate language of appreciation from that conventionally used for contemporary art. In a sense, public art is the closest thing we have, in experiential terms, to western religious art of the Christian era: objects and images that form part of the fabric of nearly everyone’s daily experience, noticed or not. Public art might, at best, be a ladder to thought or a rethinking of urban space (although I’m not sure why urban space needs to be rethought; it’s just that you’re always told it should be). For the most part, though, it isn’t. It doesn’t do anything. It’s just there. At best, it may provide a momentary pause between dermatology appointments or a useful meeting spot for a blind date, but it’s rarely much more than that, simply (I’d suggest) because it’s just too embarrassing to be standing stroking your chin contemplatively in a public place. Public art knows this, and tries not to make too many demands on your brain, while making an immediate visual zing that’s useful when you’re giving directions. (Now that there’s SatNav, maybe we don’t need any more public art).

The most exemplary recent example in London was an invasion of squatting brightly coloured elephant sculptures that appeared across parks and plazas, made and sold for an elephant charity. While the charity no doubt does sterling and admirable work, as public art it was sadly symptomatic. Scant of imagination and artistic interest, it just looked a bit sad and wacky, the sort of thing Jerry Garcia might have in his downstairs toilet.

Read the whole article on Art21 here.

Michael Callaghan at Saatchi Online

The elephant in the room is, of course, the late Mondrian: those zinging strips of gridded tape as cool paeans to modernity. Michael Callaghan's work - like that of many contemporary neo-abstractionists, such as Tomma Abts, Mary Heilmann, and Mark Grotjahn - negotiates that great oxymoron, the modern past. This generation is by no means the first to tweak pre-war abstract utopias in its own terms (just think of the blaring neon of 80s Neo-Geo, not to be seen at a gallery near you), but there's a tentative, reticent approach to Callaghan's work that's very much of its own uncertain time. You could say that what Callaghan picks up on in Mondrian's work isn't the hard geometry of its reproducible aesthetic: it's the snicks and lumps of the real objects themselves. Run a hand across a slick, maths-textbook Mondrian (don't, actually) and you'd feel an unexpected, almost gnarly roughness. Callaghan's paintings make that contradiction - the neat and the messy, the flush and the relief - their principal subject.

Take 'Untitled Pink'. What at first glance resembles a monochrome abstraction slowly reveals layers of tape, like demented plumbing or the trails of a frantic game of 'Snake 2', laid over a faintly triangular abstract grid. Callaghan's work slows the eye by delaying resolution. Each layer doesn't quite say everything; each is held together by toned-down, organic colour, and pulled apart by its own zigzagging rhythm.

Callaghan's paintings make their own space through layering and gouging, but they're about space, too. Many of his works recall a kind of urban topography, fossilised in thick layers of tactile acrylic. 'Untitled White' has all the obsessive carving-out of human movement you'd find in urban planning schemes in the eighteenth century. Strata of geometric decisions obliterate each other, clamouring for authority. Callaghan's work toys with macrocosmic organisational schemes, undermining them through a knowingly rambunctious, dog-eared application: dreams described by a drunkard.

See more Michael Callaghan and see my top ten at Saatchi Online here

Monday, 16 August 2010

'Masterpiece Theatre' at Art21

On a single day this week I saw a clutch of paintings that would, by most reckonings, be referred to as “masterpieces”: Velazquez’ Las Meninas (1656), Goya’s Third of May 1808 (1814), Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1503-4), and Picasso’s Guernica (1937). I’m deliberately not linking to images of them, because you already know what they look like. Perhaps the images flicked into your mind on reading the titles. I thought I knew them too, but this prior knowledge made it almost impossible to look at the real object with any kind of immediacy. Anecdotal historical information, the stuff upon which wall labels and guided tours are built, deadens an immediate response to a work of art. It thickens the air; it slows down your reactions. This distancing from the physicality of the thing in front of you is made literal in the Louvre’s disastrous hang of the Mona Lisa, pinioned behind glass like an entomological specimen: dead.

The sort of contextual historical knowledge used to accompany a reproduction of a famous work like Las Meninas in an historical textbook seems pretty useless when employed in front of the actual object. The object can’t be explained away that easily, and the painting looks back, amused; both Las Meninas and the Mona Lisa seem, in their focal wry female smiles, to play out this bemusement themselves. Language swarms around the smiling object and most museum hangs and curatorial approaches — burdened with words: written, read, said — reduce the duration of actual looking. We talk because we don’t know how to look.

Read the complete article on Art21 here.

'Fine Things to be Seen': installation shots

Top: Edwina Ashton
Middle: Eleanor Morgan and Karl England
Bottom: Eleanor Morgan, Gabriel Hartley and Brian Sayers
Not pictured: Rose Wylie

Images courtesy of Corinna Spencer

Friday, 13 August 2010

'Fine Things to be Seen': Week Two

Some interesting reading and listening material on 'Fine Things to be Seen', so far:

- Rose Wylie interviewed on Radio 4 (at 14 mins) here

- Insightful write-up and great pictures on Corinna Spencer's blog here

- Great discussion of the show on NW London blog here

The show continues until 5th September and is open Saturdays and Sundays. All details here.

[Above: still of video work by Edwina Ashton, who has created her own 'interventions' in the space].

Monday, 9 August 2010

Graham/Wallinger at Art21

My favorite things in Pallant House, the excellent gallery of modern British art in Chichester on the south coast of England, are a couple of small models made before its reopening in 2006. Each model is a dramatically scaled-down version of one of the principal rooms of the gallery, about the scale of a train set or civil war diorama. Inevitably, one model is of the room you’re standing in as you stoop down to look, and hung on the mini-walls are mini-versions of the works of art around you (by artists like Peter Blake, Anthony Caro, and Patrick Caulfield). Sadly, there’s no succession of mini-yous and mini-models telescoping into infinity. But here’s the great thing: all of the works are mini-versions by the artists themselves! So, peering through the Plexiglass fourth wall, you get that God-looking-down-on-His-creation satisfaction that all curators must feel when they’ve finished shuffling the pieces around with long rods, Churchill-style, in low-lit backrooms thick with cigar smoke (note to self: may need to meet an actual curator one of these days). I’ve always loved the picture — Google Images doesn’t sympathize — of Bill Rubin in his curatorial wheelchair, jabbing at little images of Picassos as his minions scamper to rearrange their placement according to his magisterial will and booming baritone (see note to self, again). Curating as an idea is a kind of intellectual board game: metonymic tokens are pushed around an artificially sequential space. Think of the similarity between the Cluedo (Clue) board and the standard museum layout. See? Like a game (and like a mix-tape, now I think of it), curating imbues its players with an inflamed sense of personal agency usually denied in social settings (I should know).

Read the rest here.

Monday, 2 August 2010

'Fine Things to be Seen' at Intervention Gallery opens this week

Above: Eleanor Morgan, Tortoise God (2008)

Fine Things to be Seen > 6 Aug – 5 Sep 2010

Curated by Tom Juneau and Ben Street

Edwina Ashton, Karl England, Gabriel Hartley, Eleanor Morgan, Brian Sayers and Rose Wylie

The title has been taken from the GK Chesterton poem 'The Rolling English Road' which concludes:

'My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.'

The poem bends pragmatic spirituality to the ancient lyric of the balladeer, staggering pie-eyed towards ‘the decent inn of death’. The mythic drunkard sees harbingers of the next life in the merry, mazy pastoralia of this: there are fine things to be seen, gods in dregs of ale-mugs and monsters in the ditches. The crooked road’s the path to Paradise. Inspired by this vision of rambunctious energy, bowling through time to knit together our sense of ourselves, Fine Things to be Seen presents a bathetic pantheon built from the stuff of intoxication and obsession.

Eleanor Morgan finds cosmic order in the intricacies of arachnid sex organs, and channels Egyptian deity Set, god of trickery and impotence, in her tortoise-headed god. Brian Sayers and Karl England focus on the ordinary objects that mark our passage through life, and in that focus infuse the everyday with the clenched power of relics. Edwina Ashton’s gallery of wonky avatars look on mutely, trying to hold themselves together, while Rose Wylie’s protoplasmic sprites try to look casual in the face of their own dissolution. And Gabriel Hartley’s warped, encrusted loops and fractals look like talismans from a future faith constructed of ancient modernism and the guts of circuit boards.

The thing about gods and monsters is they’re so often interchangeable. We make our gods from the stuff around us, stuff whose ubiquity and more or less constant historical sameness – reptiles and receptacles, twigs and tables – generates a strange spiritual intensity. Things that don’t change now might never. And whether they’re benevolent or not depends on how, and who, you ask.