Sunday, 18 December 2011

Crash Course in Contemporary Art, Jan-March 2012

My beginner's guide to contemporary art in London will take place on Saturday afternoons from January - March 2012. The complete course consists of 8 2 hour sessions, but participants can take part in one-off afternoons if they wish. The course includes the following sessions (further sessions TBC):

- What is contemporary art? Contextualising the contemporary at Tate Modern
- Collecting, display and the nature of taste at the Saatchi Gallery
- The daily practice of art: visiting an artist's studio
- Artists and galleries: a tour of east end galleries
- Understanding the art market: a visit to west end galleries
- Contemporary art's wider context: a visit to an auction house (depending on availability)

Here are testimonials from participants in my recent 5-week introduction to contemporary art:

"The Beginners Guide to Contemporary Art course has been an absorbing and enlightening introduction to a subject which had previously, at times, frustrated and confused me. Ben is the perfect guide, encouraging you to ask questions and offer your opinion. He has an extensive knowledge of his subject and is able to contextualise the contemporary with the past at a level which is accessible to all. I feel that in five weeks he has helped me understand, appreciate and look at contemporary art with fresh eyes and appreciation."

"Ben's style of teaching is friendly, informative and intelligent. He doesn't force a particular critical approach, apart from encouraging open-mindedness, and he values the contributions that members of the group make to discussions about art. By focusing on a small number of artworks in The Saatchi Gallery and Tate Modern, he helped us to engage with and understand potentially overwhelming exhibitions."

"Ben's contemporary art course provides unique insight into the elusive and somewhat opaque London art world. Aimed at all audiences, from the experienced art professional wishing to further develop an understanding of the dynamics of the artistic universe, the aspiring collector to the layperson, Ben has a depth of knowledge, lucidity of expression and passion which is contagious and enlightening."

"A very informative and eye opening introduction to contemporary art. I really appreciate the non-pompous, but still engaging and well informed approach to art and institutions showing art. Ben's personality makes this very engaging and interesting."

"I've really enjoyed Ben's tour of contemporary art. The course has allowed me to explore galleries I've been meaning to for ages (but shamefully not put aside the time to previously) such as Tate Modern, with the added value of having someone who is clearly passionate, excited and most importantly, knowledgeable about the art and the spaces. I've found Ben's teaching style to be extremely liberal and encouraging - he's clearly interested in making sure his students are making the most out of what they're looking at, without pushing ideas or opinions. I think the course is well organised, it's relaxed, fun and insightful for anyone walking in to the London art scene with no previous experience of it. I'm determined to continue enjoying uncovering these spaces and artists and I'm really pleased with the insight Ben has given me through this tour - it's been a swell introduction."

"I found Ben's presentations very reassuring and clear, and his knowledge and understanding is impressive. I very much enjoyed each session, for its variety and for opening my eyes and mind to the world of contemporary art. I can highly recommend the sessions to anyone."

How to book your place

Email with your name and contact details to secure your place, whether for the whole course or a one-off session


£200 for the full 8 weeks, or £25 per session.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

'Upon Impossibility': on Rachel Kneebone

The apparent serenity of Rachel Kneebone’s white porcelain sculptures is belied by the physicality of their making. “It’s war”, said the artist, when asked to describe her process. The manipulation of the messy slab of clay – gouged and kneaded into shape in no fewer than two days, “or the material starts going crumbly, like Wensleydale cheese” – is nowhere evident in her delicate, poised, intimate works. At least, that’s how it initially appears. On closer inspection, and you really do have to get close, her sculptures rapidly shed their prettiness. The heads of recumbent figures erupt in bouquets of labial folds. Elegantly repoussoir bodies taper into veiny penises. The Dionysiac abandon of her works’ content is always held in tension with the Apollonian clarity of its form, just as the glossy patina of the porcelain’s surface hides, like a repressed memory, the messy business of its creation.

Kneebone’s commitment not only to a kind of figuration but also to a labour-intensive process makes her seem anachronistic within the typically outsourced practice of many contemporary artists. Her usual approach places in tension two modes of creation: the carved and the cast. On a press-cast clay plinth, a figure or series of figures is hand-moulded, their forms (which always, to some extent, derive from the image or experience of the human body) partly pre-determined, partly improvised from the given form of the material. There’s something of that formal looseness in the finished works, too: an atmosphere of delicately finessed playing-off of form and content. The forms that appear seem just-made, early stages of a kind of physical creation, still slick from the primordial soup, stilled in their metamorphosis by their own quick-drying matter. And despite the hardening of the material in the kiln, there’s nothing final about the appearance of Kneebone’s works. In a sense, they’re sketches that can never quite be brought to fruition, or ideas that never quite find the right words to be articulated, either through their horrifying truths or impossible suggestions.

Porcelain has such a low profile within the history of art as to be virtually invisible. Traditionally associated with decorative and playful subjects, it came closest to artistic credibility in the heady pre-Revolutionary days of rococo France, before being shattered (along with other practices too willing to sacrifice seriousness for frippery) by modernism. It would be easy, though misguided, to see a political stance in Kneebone’s assertion of an historically neglected material. The tradition of women artists’ co-option of overlooked, implicitly feminised practices – from Rosemarie Trockel’s embroidery to Judy Chicago’s porcelain platters – made way, in the British art scene of the 1990s, to a determinedly tough-minded and punkish approach to materiality, as seen in the work of Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin. Unlike artists of that particular generation, whose work owes a singular debt to the aggressive aesthetic collisions of Dada collage and the altered readymades of Duchamp, Kneebone’s work takes a more poised and contemplative approach that gains sustenance from much earlier periods of art history. Nor does her work comply with the orthodox kitsch of Jeff Koons’ outsourced porcelain sculptures. Rather, Kneebone’s work returns to the unresolved questions of the past, employing perhaps the most ancient of motifs – the human body – as a means to explore and address questions of fundamental and transhistorical import. This description might seem to tie Kneebone into a wilfully regressive practice, but it’s a mark of her unique qualities as an artist that both her formal and philosophical concerns, though ancient, seem renewed and revitalised in the strangeness of her work.

The delicacy of her given material is intrinsic to the meanings of Kneebone’s works. The possibility of self-destruction lurks, perpetually. Her figures, unsupported by an armature, drape their long limbs outwards, as though tempting their own demise. As moisture is drawn out of the material in the kiln, its dehydrated mass can shrink by up to 20 per cent, causing easy snaps and splits. To some extent, Kneebone exploits this threat, encouraging her press-cast plinths to develop spidery cracks by piercing their sides before the firing process. This danger becomes meaningful, too. Works like Et in arcadia ego, with its curl of slim porcelain drawing the composition to a fevered crescendo, perform their own titles: death and destruction are here, even in this cradle of intricate beauty. Perhaps even especially here.

The sepulchral plinths, whose crumbled forms provide a textural contrast to the serpentine bodies that writhe above them, suggest the melancholy presence of mortality amid the fiesta of flesh, the thanatos to the figures’ eros. Classically robust, with a simple dado and cornice, they act both as stage and narrative context, suggesting resurrection as well as pictorial archetypes of melancholy. That parallel is made most apparent in her cover version of Michelangelo’s presentation drawing The Dream of Human Life, in which the reclining ignudo of the drawing has transformed into a legged cock. Kneebone’s figure, like Michelangelo’s, is propped by a plinth, touchstone of classical melancholy, and leans against a large ball (which, in Kneebone’s treatment, seems decidedly testicular). As in Poussin’s painting of the same name, the plinth in Kneebone’s Et in arcadia ego is the materialisation of heavy thought, a dead weight like an anchor. It’s this suggestion of the weight of melancholy – a notion suggested by the plinths’ blocky forms, in ironic contrast to their physical lightness – that animates Kneebone’s The Descent, in which the plinth seems to have sunken into the earth, creating a vast, Sarlacc-like pit into which her doomed characters tumble and fall.

Given her works’ refusal to resolve itself into a single, determinable meaning, drawing has an unusual role within Kneebone’s approach to art making. Unlike its conventional usage within the history of art, and with the exception of very large works such as The Descent, Kneebone does not use drawing as a rehearsal for sculpture. This is a function of her commitment to the possibilities provided by the material itself, and her avoidance of the pre-emptively ‘finished’. Rather, her drawing can be seen as a parallel practice, something not inferior to but in concert with her better-known porcelain work. In other words, it’s all drawing – specifically, drawing’s associations with the exploratory, the private, and the experimental. In a drawing like En pointe, a scenario impossible to imagine taking material form – namely, a star of stretched legs enacting the ballet position of the title, which bursts out of a series of orifices; a fat penis slumps out too, a pearl of liquid emerging from its slit – is enacted. Partially resolved lines half-describe a form redolent of Hans Bellmer’s drawings after de Sade, but where Bellmer used the specificity of the drawn line to limn a pedantically detailed vision of sexual depravity, Kneebone never quite allows her image to complete itself. She stops short just before language makes her imagery possible.

Kneebone has said that her work treats a figurative subject as though it were still life, which points to the manner in which contemporary artists address the themes of the past. Rather than employing the generic conditions under which still life came to be regarded as a separate category in the seventeenth century, Kneebone treats the genre as a physical experience. The traditional scale of still life painting is as small as its subject was humble, obliging an intimate relationship between viewer and viewed: unlike larger-scale paintings, still lifes are usually viewed by one person at a time. Similarly, Kneebone’s work – much of which, forced by the delicacy and low tensile strength of her chosen material, is no bigger than a basket of fruit – has all the held-breath intimacy of a Chardin still life. That physical relationship between object and viewer is energised all the more by the tactile quality of the material itself. The porcelain’s all-white tone (underscoring her works’ sense of perpetual becoming: it hasn’t worked out what colour to be yet) and glossy glaze encourage a particularly intimate kind of touching: you want to stroke, not grab; caress, not grip. It’s the kind of touch that knows it’s a step away from damage, and is tantalised by that knowledge. Furthermore, porcelain’s association with everyday objects – plates, cups, bowls – is a reminder not only of the artist’s engagement with the history of still life but of her profound interest in the relationship between the body and the world. Porcelain tends to be used for objects that have a close physical connection to their users, and often one associated with intimate or private functions, from false teeth to toilet bowls. Kneebone’s work, then, deals with bodily experience, in both form and content. It feels close.

To claim that figuration died out in the wake of abstraction is to misunderstand the role of the human figure in art’s philosophical maturation. Kneebone’s use of the human figure as a starting point in her work is a reminder that the best way we have of understanding ourselves is through ourselves. Her work’s principal philosophical motor is the same as that of all art of the past: as the artist herself puts it, “How do you make an idea?” It is apparent that, whatever ideas Kneebone purports to be exploring in her work, their crystalline articulation is by no means a priority – or, better, they’re ideas that can’t be conventionally articulated. In In the midst of quietness branched thoughts murmur (2007), a sort of grotto of intestinal tendrils sits atop a cracked circular plinth. Grotesque, part-figurative forms – they start as splayed legs and end as peaked labia – sprawl listlessly around, or stomp blindly across the tiny landscape. Their appearance, as though having recently emerged from the mass of slimy caves in the grotto’s centre, seems to have been suggested during the work’s own creation: the construction and the apparent subject seem bound together. In this way, Kneebone’s work recalls Max Ernst’s Surrealist decalcomania from the early 1940s, in which intricate, mazy grottoes emerged via an automatic process (in his case, the squidging of wet paint on a surface by means of a sheet of glass). Kneebone’s work has a significant kinship with Surrealism: its employment of aesthetic surprise – the sudden appearance of disturbing or sexually troubling imagery within an apparently innocent milieu – has visual parallels with her interest in Andre Breton’s ‘convulsive beauty’. And yet Kneebone’s work eschews the rebus-like Freudianism of Surrealism at its most literal. Rather, her sculptures employ a form of automatism and grotesquerie familiar from early twentieth-century art in order to probe a very contemporary array of anxieties.

Kneebone’s work should be approached in the spirit of its titles, many of which – with their odd capitalisation and absence of grammar – recall their origins as found lines from existing texts. This literariness is carried through across the artist’s practice. An intricate spider-chart of written references, allusions and ideas pinned above the artist’s desk was described as a “drawing”; starting-points for sculptures range from Blanchot, Bataille and Peignot to Dante and the Old Testament. Kneebone claims never to consider her contemporaries’ works, and is baffled by allusions that seek to place her in line with other “young British artists”. Instead, her inspiration comes largely, though never entirely (the material and its curious demands have a dominant role within the development of any given piece) from an experience of reading, a practice whose privacy and imaginative fecundity seems mirrored in the forms of the works themselves. There’s nothing illustrative, however, about Kneebone’s work. Instead, her sculptures can be said to explore timeless narratives that address the experience of death and the life beyond, whether that’s Dante’s Divine Comedy (explored in The Descent) or the theme of the death and resurrection of Christ (implied by her sprawled forms on tomb-like plinths). Her works turn on ideas that are both essential and irresolvable: how does death feel? What does it look like?

Christological themes are an undercurrent in Kneebone’s work, partly for the same reasons that Francis Bacon employed them: as he put it in one of his famous interviews with David Sylvester, the crucifixion was “an armature on which to hang certain emotions”. Like Bacon, Kneebone often employs the triptych format familiar from medieval altarpieces, and makes reference to the transfigured body of Christ as a kind of metaphor for the human soul labouring under modern conditions. For Bacon, the contorted human form, painfully isolated in space, was a symbol of western barbarism in the wake of World War Two; for Kneebone (whose name has Bacon’s own apposite corporeality, and whose works you suspect Bacon would have loved), the bodily distortions are a trace of a kind of mortal anxiety felt through and inextricable from the body. Kneebone’s works enact, on sepulchral stages redolent of death, in poses redolent of life felt at maximum physical intensity (the legs strain and buck, en pointe), the body locked in – bound by - thought. Tensed, sweat-sheened, they lunge at the inexpressible, the impossible, seeming to perform Andrew Marvell’s lines in ‘The Definition of Love’:

MY Love is of a birth as rare
As 'tis, for object, strange and high ;
It was begotten by Despair,
Upon Impossibility.

Originally published in ARS MAGAZINE, ISSUE 10, 2011

Monday, 7 November 2011

Sluice Art Fair: an overview of coverage

Simon Linington and William Mackrell, courtesy Space in Between

Press coverage of Sluice is collated here, on a PDF, including coverage in The Huffington Post, The Financial Times, Artnet, Time Out, The Arts Desk, Grazia and Culture 24.

The panel discussion, with Jasper Joffe, Cathy Lomax and Alistair Gentry, is available for download here

Copies of the catalogue are available to order here

An interview with me and co-director Karl England is available to read here

Contact for information about Sluice 2012.

Course: Contemporary Art in London

"Ben Street, former lecturer at MoMA and the Guggenheim, is offering a five-week overview of contemporary art in London, looking at private collections, commercial galleries and museums. The course runs from 19 Nov- 17 Dec each Saturday and costs £100. For more info contact"

I plan to repeat this course in January. Contact the gallery at the address above for advance places.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

On paperclips (Rong-Wrong debut issue, an extract)

We know now that every thought has a size and weight. Each thinking mind seeks a material correlative, a partner, for the thought that bobs in its inky depths. The thing tumbling within this man’s thinking fingers slowly acquires the form of the thought that makes it tumble, just as the thought itself is smoothed and resolved by the simple symmetry of the thing itself. The thought is materialised in the object; the object gave the thought a material likeness. The fingers have run through coat pockets and the dusty mouths of drawers for something to give form and shape to the movement of the mind. The hand imitates the mind’s travel, picking things up or casting them aside. For now, this thing is a paperclip. This is the form the thought has taken. This is the size and weight of the thought in this man’s mind.

A paperclip. Not (for now) the lid of a pen with its corrugated teeth-marks, the tiny screw-on cap of a bullet of lip salve, or the wild maw of a bulldog clip. All of these things are available, depending on the nature of the thought. But for this thought, this recursive and reflexive pondering (a city bus, bumping in summer traffic), the double curl and sudden annulments of the paperclip give unrealised materiality to the meanderings of a waiting mind.

[above: the size and weight of Sarah Connor's thoughts of escape]

The complete essay on paperclips is to be found in the debut issue of RONG-WRONG, a new publication featuring essays by Owen Hatherley, William H Gass, Kodwo Eshun and Stephen Connor, among others. Copies can be purchased via the website,

Friday, 9 September 2011

On Aliki Braine (Vienna catalogue text)

My text for Aliki Braine's exhibition of photographs at Galerie Raum mit Licht, Vienna.

A photograph of a landscape is a photograph of the idea of a landscape. Adjusting the camera’s field of vision – allowing a sliver of sky above the top of a tree, or the full width of the river, to be taken in – is a way of locking your image in to an idea already held in the head. Landscapes are, in other words, preemptive: your image sits within a pre-existing idea, with memories of past landscapes laid over it like transparencies. And those past images, reaching back beyond the earliest photographs into the painted landscapes of the seventeenth century, allude to a linguistic certainty: we know what a landscape is, because a landscape looks like this.

Aliki Braine’s images look like landscapes. Their two-thirds sky, one-third land proportions nod to this. And our way of looking at them might well replicate the way we ordinarily look at images of landscape: as emblems of retreat or tokens of sublimity. Yet Braine’s works enact a series of interferences at the development stage. These are landscapes caught in the act of becoming: elided, blocked-out and part-erased while still negatives, they tease at the certainties of our image of the landscape as a way of unravelling our certainties about language itself.

Take, for example, Braine’s 2006 White Out/Black Out images. A single tree, locked dead centre in a kind of homage to the mighty oaks of the Romantic tradition, is photographed against a clear sky. Its associations, with national and genealogical ancientness, are what Jasper Johns would call “things the mind already knows”. Braine’s addressing and unpicking of the image, a rural version of Johns’ replication of the stuff of urban living, is a way of reversing the process by which an image becomes unnoticeable. The hole-punched vacancies that blot out the trees, and the whited-out streaks that erase them, perform a conceptual sleight-of-hand: the tree becomes more visible for its disappearance. These images haven’t yet been allowed to become “landscape”, and by doing so are stilled somewhere between the world as seen and the world as known. Because you don’t see, you look.

Braine’s works are not only not quite landscapes, they’re not quite photographs, either. Each image is a record of an act of destruction to another image, and these two images – the tampered negative and the faithful positive – coexist in anxious dialogue. In the Circle/Square images, a forest scene redolent of Friedrich or the brothers Grimm appears part-obscured by a semi-opaque white circle. Fading slightly at the edges, the circle resembles a hovering snowglobe, its contents frosted with sinking flakes of white: a container for an idea about landscape. Made by affixing an ordinary sticker to the negative, the image as seen reflects on its own creation, becoming in the process a inversion of the self-certifying circular mirror in Jan Van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfini Portrait’. Braine’s images speak to themselves, asking of themselves: is this is a landscape? Does a landscape look like this? Every image is a stutter and a shrug.

Details of the exhibition are here.

Monday, 5 September 2011

On Thomas Struth's 'San Zaccaria'

Maybe Thomas Struth’s 1995 photograph of the interior of the church of San Zaccaria in Venice is too obvious a way to epitomise the relationship between contemporary art and the art of the past. Not only that: it’s also nearly 20 years old, it’s over-familiar, and it’s representative of a moment in photography that now looks old hat, very pre-2008. The thing itself seems like a relic of a time when photography set out to be object first and image second: a huge glossy C-print, designed for easy installation over a plutocrat’s mantle. There’s something obscene about it, even: a photographic object, printed in an edition made to sate commercial tastes, recording a unique painted object, whose placement – as much as whose content and author – generates a heightened aura of sacramental exclusivity. There’s pathos to that, too, on first look. It might be used to head an article on the indifference of the modern public to great artistic masterpieces (look at that dude on the bottom left! He’s not even looking!), or an op-ed on the rise of atheism. So the reaction to the work is sometimes a bit sneering. That, or – as I witnessed while looking at this work in Struth’s current show at the Whitechapel gallery – awe. Strewth!

Read the whole article at Art21 here.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

On the unheimlich scupture of Hyesoo You

Hyesoo You’s mixed-media sculptures very nearly remind you of something. Not of other artists, especially, although somewhere in their genetic past they must have at least crossed paths with Ashley Bickerton (for their occasional blasts of neon), or Phillip King (for their cheery plasticity), or Anne Truitt (for their nimble strut between industrial minimalism and candy-striped d├ęcor). Rather, they resemble the abstracted logos of family-friendly organisations: Happy Eater’s bulimic PacMan, for instance, or the shaggy young buck on the Happy Shopper sign. That unnerving disconnect between the word ‘happy’ and the wild eyes and mad maw of its representation must be lodged deep in the head of any child that sees it, and You’s work, if unconsciously, picks up on this deep-seated anxiety, the strange and unpredictable fears of children. Stripping these dimly familiar forms of any textual allusion, You sidesteps the spent pop tradition to make sculptures that resonate both visually and physically. They’re pictures, in other words, and things, too.

You’s Love III (2011) is a two-part painted sculpture that sits, Brancusi-style, in delicate visual balance on a plinth. A large black circular form – or, really, a circle within a larger semi-circle, a blunted arrowhead – above a much smaller striped one. It can’t help but seem anthropomorphic, a part-silhouetted cartoon of a girl with a bob, or a soldier in a tin helmet. Its humanness, though, is alarming. Featureless and limbless, unmoored from its implied commercial context, the thing sits, both staring and not. Its physicality as an object is unheimlich in the way Freud meant it: this thing is in your world, taking the place of things you know and understand. Bouncing your attention back by refusing to quite explain itself, You’s piece has a kind of mild but unsettling sense of provocation, a thing in a dream that keeps coming back. It’s like Ad Reinhardt’s Ab Ex cartoon made real: “Ha Ha! What does this represent?” says the sceptic. “What do you represent?” replies the picture.

If Love III is a sculptural picture, Future of the Past (2010) is an architectural one. Four stacked units done in blazing dayglo colours make nodding reference not to actual buildings but to pictures of buildings. Simplified balconies, fireplaces and windows are interspersed, and architectural languages are jammed together with a jaunty irreverence: medieval swallowtail battlements bump up against hi-tech lattices and crossbeams. In common with You’s practice as a whole, Future of the Past stops short just before it can be fully explained – the artist’s taste for abstractions in titles attests to this. Not quite a building, not quite a sculpture, not quite a picture, You’s work oscillates between categories and dances away, like a word read in a dream that you can’t quite say out loud.

Piece published on Saatchi online. See it here, plus my top ten Saatchi Online artists.

Monday, 18 July 2011

On Fred Sandback and string [UPDATED]

The small installation of Sandback’s work, currently on view in a single room at the Whitechapel Gallery, is the best example of the late artist’s spatial alchemy you’re likely to see in the UK. Sandback needs space, and a lot of it, despite his work’s modest (and physically feather-light) qualities. He’s best showcased at Dia:Beacon, where he effortlessly steals the show from his more heavy-handed minimalist compatriots. A huge rectangle of blue yarn, nailed invisibly to the concrete floor at an angle to its insertion in the wall, becomes a vast and flawless sheet of glass, leaning gently, worryingly. Sandback’s work, like that of Michael Heizer, Richard Serra, and Richard Tuttle, is a reminder that the physical experience of art trumps its intellectual unravelling every time. Language pales in comparison to that stomachy leap of fear and pleasure. As Sandback himself put it in 1975: “I don’t have an idea first and then find a way to express it. That happens all at once (…) Ideas are executions.” And: “Fact and illusion are equivalents.”

Read the whole piece here.

Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes links to the piece. (Thank you).

Monday, 11 July 2011

On Twombly/Poussin, and the trouble with classicism

For everyone concerned – from the wide-eyed Twombly of the fifties, having himself photographed by Constantine’s massive digit, to Poussin, wangling his way into the inner circle of antiquarian patrons, to the Romans themselves, gawping back over their shoulder at the silent grandeur of their adopted ancestors – the classical past was something at a remove, to be jolted back to life through art and writing. This cultural electrode-clamping is something so recurrent in Western culture as to be conspicuous only by its absence. And it’s particularly conspicuous now, with the loss of Twombly this week, as though a golden thread, passed from hand to hand, had fallen to the floor.

Read the whole article (at Art21) here.

Monday, 20 June 2011

On contemporary art's (strange) relationship to the past

Contemporary art can sometimes feel like a completely new thing. It’s surprising, sometimes, to realise it’s only the latest way of thinking visually we’ve been able to come up with. Paranoiac art historians, eager to stress the academic credentials of a subject once thought ‘soft’ (Calvin Tomkins’ 2001 profile of Kirk Varnedoe for The New Yorker outlines the anxiety of the male art historian nervous about the feminizing influence of all those pretty pictures) hide in the murky maze of research, safe in their bastions of specialization. This is not to suggest that academic art history has had a pernicious influence on the way art is shown and seen; the benefits of the subject are obvious and need not be discussed. Rather, that an overly historicist approach, born of a fear of not being taken seriously, has placed art-historical artifacts into distinct compartments, and that compartmentalization threatens to cut contemporary art from its moorings and push it away from the centre of culture, like an enormous yacht gently turning in the middle of the ocean.

Read the whole article (at Art21) here.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Sluice Art Fair 15-16th Oct 2011

Below are details about my new venture with the artist Karl England.

Sluice is a new art fair in an expansive space in the heart of the West End gallery district. Showcasing emerging artist- and curator-run galleries, Sluice will present the most exciting new artistic discoveries from across the United Kingdom and abroad.

Sluice will provide an informal and accessible temporary platform for young galleries to exhibit their artists’ work, to gain exposure and encourage dialogue between artists, galleries, and audiences. Located in central London, a few minutes' walk from Bond Street Underground station, Sluice is free and open to all.

Organised by an artist and an art writer and curator, Sluice is both exhibition space and platform for discussion and creation. Art-making workshops for children and young people will be run over the weekend, and a series of performances and talks will be held in the space.

Follow Sluice Art Fair on Twitter @sluiceartfair
Or via Facebook (Sluice Art Fair)

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

On Tony Tasset's 'Judy'

Tony Tasset’s Judy, currently on show at the Leo Koenig Projekte Space in Chelsea, New York, is a six-minute 35mm film of the artist’s artist wife, Judy Ledgerwood. Against an out-of-focus backdrop of what might be a rose bush (nodding to Ledgerwood’s own paintings), her head tilted, the subject stares into the camera. Two things happen in sequence: she smiles, very slightly, and a small inverted ‘v’ of concern appears between her eyebrows. The camera moves in, almost imperceptibly; a breeze catches the wisps of hair at her temples; the film is over.

Read the whole piece (at Art21) here.

Monday, 16 May 2011

On Vera Lutter's camera obscura photographs

Vera Lutter made a camera obscura out of an old leather suitcase and took it with her to Egypt, surreptitiously making images of ancient monuments (local laws being fairly punctilious when it comes to photography). The intrepid Tintin-meets-Capa narrative is a reminder that the romanticism thoroughly leached out of conventional ‘fine art’ in the 1960s still has a home in photography. Curled at their edges, intimate in scale, their clandestine provenance becomes part of the meaning of each work. The resulting negative images are as unsullied a representation of the pure photographic image – photography as ‘light writing’ – as a fixed image can be. Lutter’s photographs are, in other words, what images look like before language makes sense of them, and her practice involves geographical locations that are swamped and steeped in language: Manhattan, Venice, Egypt. Unphotographable places.

Read the complete piece at Art21 here.

Monday, 2 May 2011

On Ai Weiwei

When an artist dies, their work changes forever. Whatever it was they were doing at the time of their demise becomes loaded with retroactive meaning and spurious clairvoyance. With the exception of works knowingly produced in the inverted shadow of suicide – Rothko’s hyper-bleak late-60s moonscapes, almost anything on In Utero – most “late works” (in Edward Said’s famous designation) aren’t made with the intention of providing a tragic coda to a life lived publicly, but can’t help but acquire new meaning by virtue of their proximity to death. Painting especially does this: looking at Titian’s astounding Pieta, left unfinished at the time of his death in 1575 and completed by an assistant, it’s almost impossible not to be moved by the thought of the artist’s plague-crabbed fingers dragging pigment across the corpse of Christ. Even Duchamp’s Etant Donnes, designed in secret while the artist had nominally quit art to concentrate on chess, manages to acquire a funereal resonance in its evocation of a tomb (perhaps even The Tomb). David Foster Wallace’s recently published posthumous novel The Pale King will, as I write, be being scoured for allusions to his 2008 suicide, as though his life were lived backwards. In effect, all these efforts are part of the perennial human project to find meaning and pattern in the messy, unmanageable stuff of human existence.

Read the complete piece at Art21 here.

Monday, 25 April 2011

On Tiger Woods and modern art [NEW]

Above: a page from "How to Survive Modern Art" (Tate)

Tiger Woods is a profoundly uninteresting man, elevated to role model status in America by his unwavering commitment to brand promotion and the eradication of personal charisma, so when the revelations of his marital infidelities came to light in 2009, it was yet another contradiction of Fitzgerald’s too-quoted line about there being no second acts in American lives. Woods was being given a second chance, to save himself from the ignominy of living and dying the blank-eyed apparatchik of marketing departments at corporations everywhere. He was becoming a human, in the way that all robots in Hollywood films eventually grow a soul. Yet during the televised press conference, Woods’s charmlessness shone through like the sick light of a vandalized lighthouse. “I am truly sorry,” he intoned, auto-AutoTune-ing his voice beyond the wavering reality of the human larynx and by doing so, managed to simultaneously address and obfuscate the reality of his actions. Woods was using language against its function, allowing phrases like “my behavior has been a personal disappointment” to suggest contrition while denying his listeners access to genuine feeling. This is how an institutionalized language works: we’re telling you all we think you need to know. This is how language works in the art world.

Read the full article here.

EXTRA: Very kind words from Stephanie Vegh.

Hands-down, the best essay I read this week came from the ever-reliable Ben Street at Art:21 who composes a remarkable transition from the hollow contrition of Tiger Woods to the idiotic simplicity of art writing for a non-arts audience. With refreshing honesty and intelligence, Street indicts books for art’s newcomers that in attempting to dumb down artists and their respective movements for a general audience, serve only to shut them out of the conversation entirely.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

New: catalogue essay for Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

I've written a catalogue essay for this show of Jan Fabre's work at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Details of the show are below.

Jan Fabre: The Years of the Hour Blue

The Picture Gallery of the Kunsthistorisches Museum presents a group of around thirty works from the series “The Hour Blue” created by Jan Fabre between 1986 and 1990; the show marks the culmination of a personal trilogy by the Belgian artist (Antwerp 2006, the Louvre in Paris 2008). Executed in blue BIC ballpoint pen, these drawings and three-dimensional objects interact with the highlights of the KHM’s collection on show in the Picture Gallery. In addition, important sculptures by the artist are displayed in the Entrance Hall and – visible from Maria-Theresia Square – on the roof of the museum, creating a fascinating discourse between the present and the past, the transitory and the eternal.

The works on show are loans from important private collections and international museums such as the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Museum Kiasma in Helsinki.

For further information on Jan Fabre and his work please visit his official websites (visual arts) and (performing arts).

Monday, 18 April 2011

Ars Magazine: Rachel Kneebone

My piece for Ars magazine on Rachel Kneebone is now in print and is previewed here.

Monday, 28 March 2011

On Expensive Paintings as Metaphors of Themselves

Funny how very expensive paintings become metaphors of themselves. The 45-million-dollar Duccio bought by the Met in 2005 shows the incarnate deity supported with infinite care by his reverentially gazing mother, in prophecy of the object’s later veneration by acquisitive museum trustees. Similarly, Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks, picked up by the National Gallery in 2004 for a mere 35 million pounds, predicts its own historical afterlife as object of enraptured awe: the Madonna both supports and frames the child, holding it and owning it. Actaeon unveils the nude Diana at her bath, like a museum director pulling a curtain cord at a press conference, in a Titian bought by the National Gallery for roughly the GDP of Belgium in 2008. In all of these works, the looked-upon object of attention is, like a work of art, something between divine and physical, capable of redeeming (Christ) or cursing (Diana) the life of the observer. It’s all in the viewer’s use of what he or she beholds. Look how, in Duccio’s painting, Christ returns the touch, or how Diana’s body, the whole shebang, is stretched out for Actaeon’s grateful view. These paintings dramatize rapture at the sight of a beautiful thing.

Read the whole post here.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

"Leo Steinberg, Art Historian, Dies at 90"

Masaccio, Virgin and Child, 1420s

"At the risk of belaboring what is obvious, I must address myself to the many who still habitually mistake pictorial symbols in Renaissance art for descriptive naturalism. To take one example: At the sight of an infant Christ touching the Virgin's chin, they will admire the charm of a gesture so childlike, playful, affectionate. They are not wrong, but I think they are satisfied with too little. For the seeming artlessness of what I shall call the chin-chuck disguises a ritual form of impressive antiquity. It is first encountered in New Kingdom Egypt as a token of affection or erotic persuasion. In Archaic Greek painting the gesture is given to wooers, and it occurs more than once in the Iliad to denote supplication. In Late Antique art, the caress of the chin is allegorized to express the union of Cupid and Psyche, the god of Love espousing the human soul. And the gesture proliferates in medieval art into representations both of profane lovers and of the Madonna and Child. Thus no Christian artist, medieval or Renaissance, would have taken this long-fixed convention for anything but a sign of erotic communion, either carnal or spiritual. By assigning it to the Christ Child, the artist was designating Mary's son as the Heavenly Bridegroom who, having chosen her for his mother, was choosing her for his eternal consort in heaven".

[Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion]

Read Steinberg's obituary here.

Monday, 7 March 2011

On Marcus Coates' 'The Trip'

All travel is retrospective. We don’t travel for the experience – most traveling time is spent waiting, after all – but in order to have something to remember. The easy editing abilities of digital photography have transformed utterly the modern idea of travel. It’s all peaks, no troughs: the past perfect. Journeys only really exist once they’ve finished, and every story starts at the end.

The Trip is a 35-minute film by the artist Marcus Coates that consists of two long, still shots of the same thing: the interior of a room in a hospice in north west London. You see a flat-screen TV, a wall-lamp, and a window giving onto a quiet suburban road. In one of the shots, the day’s color drains, barely perceptibly, from the sky. In the other, the morning’s light is still, steady, the sky windless. Unseen between the two shots, each one lasting the duration of a dialogue heard on the soundtrack, is the event of the title: a trip to the Amazonian rainforest, which is discussed in voiceover in both parts of the film. The disparity — both comic and poignant — of what’s seen and heard is part of the point. The trip, undertaken by the artist, is plotted in the first section and recounted in the second. Nothing of the trip itself is shown: it happens in the two men’s dialogue and in the mind of the viewer. The trip was proposed by one of the men, a terminally ill man named Alex H., and was carried out and described by the artist.

Read the whole article here.

Monday, 28 February 2011

On Peter Hildebrand (Saatchi Online)

The first really noticeable thing about Peter Hildebrand’s paintings is their fostering of tensions: between the man-made and the organic, the neatly-limned and the wildly splodged. Against a background of drooled or spat-out paint, Hildebrand creates imaginary architectural structures, whose forms’ intricacies and details suggest vast, human-dwarfing scale. By turns recalling the spectacular fripperies of World’s Fair pavilions (dodecahedral structures out of Buckminster Fuller recur) or the grim blankness of corrective institutions (panopticons and H-blocks), Hildebrand’s loopy architectural fantasies seem wilfully unbuildable, like Antonio Sant’Elia’s impossible futurist buildings. The allusion to utopian modernist projects is of a piece with a strain in contemporary art that looks back at the failed visions of the last century like embarrassing family secrets, best kept hidden.

For Hildebrand, though, the modernist past is re-presented not as the materialisation of long-discredited political fantasy but as something stranger, wilder, and more irrational than orthodox readings might have us assume. In Hildebrand’s paintings, two apparently contradictory twentieth-century aesthetic and political movements are forcibly conjoined: the hard-edged asceticism of Bauhaus utopianism and the lurid gut-spilling of Surrealism at its most unbridled.

Take, for example, his painting Fuller’s Glitch – its title perhaps a reference to the aforementioned Buckminster. Layers of paint are superimposed like webs. Close-to, the work (like many of Hildebrand’s paintings) has the obsessive layering and horror vacui detailing of Chris Ofili’s paintings of the mid-1990s. A brain-like next of pipes confronts a giant E-shaped turquoise structure, from one of whose fronds a small pink modernist building emerges, like a thumb. Simultaneously galactic and microscopic, Hildebrand’s painting juxtaposes the inner life of the creative mind, feverishly cooking up impossible architectural solutions to insoluble societal problems, and the expanses of the universe beyond. The neural analogy is perhaps intentional: “buckyballs”, molecules of pure carbon shaped like Fuller’s geodesic domes, are a much pored-over issue in nanotechnology. The tension between the visible and invisible, the impossibly large and microscopically small, is part of what charges Hildebrand’s paintings with their weird urgency.

In Hildebrand’s Pentagonia, a five-sided building, evidently based on the Pentagon, is elevated on slender stilts against a spray of white paint. It glows, like a halo. Vaguely spaceship-like, it tilts threateningly overhead, its sides sparkling with pixellated windows. This is an uninhabitable space, a reminder of the etymology of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (“no place”), a place comically uninterested in human access. Strutting on its spindly legs, like one of Dali’s disembodied heads on crutches, it seems unstable, somehow wobbly, like a dream leaving your mind.

Published on Saatchi Online, 28th Feb 2011. See the post here, plus my monthly top ten.

Monday, 21 February 2011

'Beat the Champ'

Whether or not computer games are actually any good for us – some argue they cause children to become withdrawn and asocial, and others suggest that they provide valuable life skills, like killing zombies with flamethrowers – there are certain life lessons all of them, whatever they are, eventually teach. Namely: spend long enough doing something and you’ll eventually do well at it, then suddenly regret all the time you spent doing it. Or: there are some things you will never be able to do, no matter how hard you try. There’s nothing like a video game – especially when the avatar is the almost exact physical opposite of the player, which is all the time – to reinforce a deeply-rooted feeling of loserishness. And that, roughly, is the subject of Cory Arcangel’s outstanding new installation at the Curve gallery in the Barbican Centre, called Beat the Champ.

Read the full review at Art21 here.

Monday, 7 February 2011

On Sculpture Being Boring

“Why is sculpture so boring?” So said Charles Baudelaire in 1848. Sculpture in Baudelaire’s time was boring. In actual fact, with some notable exceptions, sculpture was, for a very long time, very boring indeed. Have a wander through the Musee d’Orsay or the second floor of the Met and you might well be struck by the disparity between painting and sculpture in the mid- to late- nineteenth century. On the one hand, there’s Gustave Courbet’s ferocious, gnarled tableaux of ugly peasants and aggressively sexual maidens; on the other, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s dreary trudge through mythological subjects. With the occasional blip – all of Degas’s sculptures and some of Rodin’s – sculpture at the birth of modernism looked like something we were planning to ditch once we worked out what paintings should look like. This wasn’t new in the nineteenth century – Leonardo da Vinci had famously already slammed sculpture as retrograde and coarse, something for the horny-handed working classes/Michelangelo – and nothing had really changed by the time of Ad Reinhardt’s dinner party witticism in the 1950s: “sculpture is something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting,” after which he waggled his eyebrows and pinched an heiress on the backside.

Read the whole piece at Art21 here.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Rebecca Nassauer, 1951 - 2010

Read Rebecca's obituary in The Independent here.

Read my piece on Rebecca's show 'Safekeepers' here.

Monday, 3 January 2011

'Gifted': Final Week [reopens 3/1]

Rather than asking artists to submit a work that perhaps fit with a theme or model, curator Ben Street decided to create a sort of artistic ‘Secret Santa’. Each artist was asked to choose a piece that they would be happy to have altered (but not so rubbish that they were destined for the trash). The work was then sent, as randomly as geographical constraints allowed, to another artist. The receiver was then instructed to alter the work completely, partially or not at all. The results were then put on display.

There we have it ladies and gentlemen. Embodied in an exhibition, the answer to why we need curators. Curators may sometimes appear to simply arrange or postulate. Occasionally however, projects such as this arrive and remind us that they can produce something truly exciting, intriguing and even, shock horror, fun. The point being that curators can create an artistic space (conceptually or otherwise) that artists may never have conceived of by themselves.


What Street has achieved is wonderful. To expand this partnership to a whole gallery community and to succeed, a victory. The artists created the art, but the curator instigated the process and created the environment for it to occur and be shared with the public. We may have too many curators and they may sometimes seem redundant or overly controlling, but Gifted shows us why we need them.

Rebecca Collins at Trebuchet Magazine