Tag Archives: modern art

two figures, reclining

the long painting in the middle was begun about two weeks ago, finished it off today, poster paints on paper, pasted and stapled together, dimensions approx 80inches by 23inches…



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degree shows

Yesterday I visited Newcastle University’s Fine Art Degree Show. I arrived about 30 minutes before the show closed for the day, my efforts to arrive earlier having been frustrated by both the rail and bus services. I therefore didn’t manage to get around all the works on show, probably less that half of them.

Of what I did see it was encouraging to see painting and sculpture prominently on show, although one of the most entertaining works was a video piece (Verity Casey’s fictional landscapes). However what lingers longest in the memory isn’t necessarily the art being exhibited but the well produced catalogue, (a bargain at £2), and the students firm grasp, as they seek to position themselves and their work, of the frequently baffling lexicon of the artists statement. Their work is variously subjective, unorthodox, decontextualised, absent, limitless, fragmented, distorted and more.

None of these characteristics might be apparent when standing in front of the actual work. Anyone unfamiliar with contemporary or modern art may simply be tempted to ask ‘why’ or ‘what’, as might the familiar but sceptical. The problem facing anyone making art these days, whether student or professional (as loosely defined a description as your every likely to encounter given the low income of the majority of most artists) is how to justify what they do so that it is serious and worthwhile to a society that doesn’t really know what it wants from the thousands who describe themselves as an artist. In 2011 AIR, the ‘UK’s leading professional body for visual and applied artists’ reported having in excess of 16,300 members.

There is no commonly held view about what art is for these days, whether amongst those who are making art or those viewing or buying it. Often, it seems for the political class art is about national prestige and boosting GDP (or GVA); for collectors its a commodity and an investment; for the public sector its social work; for the majority its decorative or its irrelevant. Meanwhile for artists, the continuing temptation is to scrabble about, as many of these students ably demonstrate, constructing reasons for their work out of sets of cultural, political and/or sociological theory, technical and obscure words and phrases.

The artist statements (and the articles and essays) that result might be interesting, playful or genuinely thought provoking. Keeping up with them can certainly help to make you feel part of a (exclusive, artists) club (useful if your not making any money out of your efforts) but in the long run, when it comes to improving the lot for most practicing artists, they probably don’t help.

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I was out walking earlier today and came across this strip of mud.

It reminded me of one of Richard Long’s walking pieces, though its fairly certain that the strip wasn’t created with any artistic intentions. Not because Tanfield, which was where I was walking, is automatically a place not to be associated with modern or contemporary art. It has as much right to be a host to artistic production as anywhere else.
It is instead that the strip lacks definition. Compare the Tanfield strip with Long’s 1972 Walking Line in Peru, with its undeviating track disappearing of into the hills and the haphazard edges of the former clearly mark it out as accidental, just part of its surroundings with nothing special about it.
Robert Hughes seemed to suggest in Shock of the New, that land art offered artists an alternative to the gallery system and the economics of the art market. There could be no intrinsic value attached to a line in the soil and a massive structure built far into the desert couldn’t be displayed in a gallery for the convenience of rich collectors.
Land art could offer a more socialist alternative perhaps to an increasingly aristocratic art market. Unfortunately, with some exceptions, Long maybe, Andy Goldsworthy certainly, I think land art remains as remote to the majority as most abstract or conceptual art. It would interesting to know what any Peruvians coming across Long’s walked line thought of it and whether the recognised any aesthetic dimension to it. The obvious irony of the land artist’s practice is that individual pieces can sit as far away from the gallery as it wants to but to make their statement known land artists have to photograph, make drawings and record notes which are often then displayed, bought and traded in the marketplace.
Where does all that leave the strip of mud in Tanfield then? Nowhere really, it simply exists until with the passage of time it doesn’t.

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art and ritual

A little while ago I watched The Artist is Present, a film about Marina Abramovic’s preparation for and participation in her 2010 retrospective at MOMA, New York. At the centre of the film is Abramovic’s eponymous performance piece, which involved her sitting at a small table for the duration of the three month long exhibition.  Across the table from her was an empty seat that visitors were invited to sit on. Touching or gesture appeared to be banned so the artist and spectator were left to contemplate each other for presumably a given amount of time. Other visitors stood or sat around the edge of the gallery space watching or waiting their turn to sit opposite Abramovic.

What was striking about the piece was the way it seemed to capture the imagination of the public, at the very least the gallery-going public, and the extreme emotional impact sitting or even wanting to sit opposite from Abramovic had on individuals. This may have been partly down to the editing of the film but the exhibition did attract thousands of visitors apparently and as it neared the end of its three month run we see queues forming of people who are desperate to participate. On one level this could be another manifestation of the celebratory culture, albeit of a somewhat more clannish nature to that you might read in OK or other celeb driven magazines. One scene features the Hollywood actor James Franco, who visits the exhibition only to be asked by another visitor if he acts.

Abramovic set out with her performance to ‘achieve a luminous state of being’ and to engage her audience in an ‘energy dialogue’. She say’s she knew it was the right piece to do because the mere thought of it made her ‘nauseous’ . Describing her piece in mystical terms seems appropriate for both in the way Abramovic committed her body to the ascetic discipline of sitting almost motionless every day for three months and in the reaction to those who made the trip to see her and especially those who sat across from her, the performance begins to take on the character of a religious experience.

This is interesting because, certainly in the UK, maybe less so in the US, religious belief is on the wane. The recently published Census for England and Wales reported 14.1 million people as having no religion. And yet one of the things that religious practice gives us – a set of rituals that promote a shared set of values and regulates our daily or weekly behaviours – still seems important to people, though clearly those rituals and shared experience can come through other non-religious routes, politics, the media for example. The art critic Peter Fuller often wrote about the absence of a shared set of beliefs or references through which the viewer can look at and understand contemporary art. Without this framework in which he or she can locate their work then the practice of the artist, according to Fuller, would begin to resemble that of the mental patient (Pollock, Debuffet) or mimic advertising and the language of capitalism (Hamilton, Warhol).

Another current artist whose work displays the language of ritual is Spartacus Chetwynd, one of the finalists in this years Turner Prize. Her Turner piece Odd Man Out had all the features of a tribal ritual; totems, movement and dance, markings and clothing to transform the human image. The drawings of Chetwynd’s fellow finalist Paul Noble, of his fictional Nobson Newtown, also have an obsessional quality about them. If Chetwynd’s performance draws on animism, Noble and Abramovic recall, I think, the actions of early christian hermits or anchorites, who would be shut away from the community in order to devote themselves to strict religious practice.

What each of these artists lack of course is that widely shared set of beliefs in which to locate their practice. For Fuller, who was in his early career a Marxist and atheist, nature provided that shared experience. Watching The Artist is Present, I’m not sure if the people who came to look at Abramovic were coming consciously with a shared set beliefs or experiences. I don’t know if that was even something Abramovic was wanting or expecting as a sort of precursor to visitors coming to her exhibition. Maybe it was enough for each visitor to come with their own expectations, prejudices and enthusiasms and make of the work of Abramovic (or Chetwynd or Noble) what they will.

I read a quote recently of someone who said that galleries were the new cathedrals, or something like that, frustratingly I now can’t find the quote. It may have been a response to those Census figures and in some ways it feels an accurate statement. I’m certainly not arguing for a return to widespread religious practice and belief. I am concerned though, like Peter Fuller was, that in the absence of  some shared values making art in a society that under globalisation is becoming ever more atomised that artists often seem to do no more than obsessively work away in mental or physical isolation producing work that is amusing or interesting and in some cases highly valued but ultimately irrelevant.

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23/12/2012 · 10:27 am

Picasso and modern British art

A common observation made of the exhibition Picasso and Modern British Art has been that the British artists represented have, next to Picasso, appeared to be also rans. Given that the selection includes Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Ben Nicholson and David Hockney its quite a damning assessment but I’m not sure its altogether fair.

Certainly Picasso’s energy and inventiveness is evident in all his work on show. One of the painting that has remained with me since going to see the exhibition is a modest still life, painted with a fairly limited palette, quite different in temperament from ‘The Three Dancers’ for instance which in size and ambition was always you suspect intended to be a major statement.  The little still life is just mesmerising however and Nicholson’s much larger still life sitting alongside do look rather stolid and maybe a bit dull. You can often spot Picasso’s line in Nicholson’s drawing but, as you might expect from someone living and working in Britain with its dull, damp weather, his colours are often muted, earths and ochres. I didn’t check the date of Picasso’s still life but it may well have been painted during one of his period in the Mediterranean. If so, no wonder then if it is brighter, livelier, more full of movement and organic form.

Another room is shared by Henry Moore and Picasso. Here again I suggest there are differences based in part at least on environment and temperament. There is a little bronze maquette Picasso produced for a monument (to Apollinaire I think) that apparently scandalised the judges with its eroticism. And indeed there is a palpable  sensuousness about the sculpture. Compared with the little bronze, Moore is more like a geographer or architect, his sculpture coolly mapping out forms and dividing space. It’s tempting to conclude that there is nothing of the Spaniard’s fiery temperament in the bluff Yorkshireman, but that’s probably just stereotyping.

Overall what I got from the exhibition, particularly in the earlier sections covering the period roughly from 1900 to the 1930’s was the sense discovery and experiment. So that even a relatively minor figure like Duncan Grant I think held his own with Picasso as both tried to create a new art drawing lessons from African art and other non-western sources. Certainly Picasso was soared away and left Grant behind in terms of achievement and impact but that only really matters if your approach to art is that its like a race with winners and losers, first and second divisions. Unfortunately, with the way the current art market operates for many major collectors that’s exactly what it is, to the detriment of the rest of us.

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all back to Versailles

Listening to the radio this morning, there was a report about a potential rebellion by shareholders of Barclay’s Bank over levels of executive pay. I read on twitter that rating agency Standard and Poor plan to downgrade Spain’s credit rating thus making the country’s borrowing costs considerably higher. The papers are still full of speculation about the likelihood of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s cabinet career coming to a juddering halt follow the revelations about his and his special advisor’s conduct over News Corps attempt to take over BSkyB. And the media is equally packed with reports, comment and analysis of Rupert Murdoch’s evidence to the Levison enquiry in to press standards. Earlier in the week on Newsnight there was debate about the consequences of a socialist president being elected in France, the fall of the Dutch coalition government because its members couldn’t agree over planned austerity measures and a German government minister telling us there is no alternative to austerity. Here in the UK we are now officially in a double dip recession – the first since the 1970’s apparently – and the Tory/Lib Dem coalition’s austerity measures aren’t even fully implemented yet.

How should the arts respond to this? In particular, how do the visual arts respond? A common thread to all everything listed above is that the ordinary man, woman and child is taking the pain whilst a political and economic elite is doling it out and telling us there is no alternative. I’m reminded of a recent history of Versaille on BBC4. What I hadn’t appreciated before was how remote from society the French aristocracy became, even absenting themselves from the inconvenience of paying taxes it seems. Consider reports about how little tax the very wealthiest are paying now, and that was before George Osborne gave them a 5% tax cut, whilst raising taxes on the elderly, and I don’t think its too far fetched to suggest we’re moving backwards to a condition similar to that of 17th Century France.

For French artists at the time Poussin and Classicism appear to have been the dominant influences. You can interpret that as giving visual testimony to what was surely the aristocratic view of a society that was correctly ordered and balanced, in their favour of course.  Poussin’s use of classical and mythological themes would have lent further credence to the notion that this was the natural order of things, as intended by God himself. Modernism of course freed the artist of the shackles of having to satisfy the visual fantasies of the ruling class or indeed the middle class – although these were the people who would end up buying modern art. From the 19th century the artist increasingly became the outsider, his role as Gide wrote ‘to be at odds with his times’. But whilst its easy enough to find contemporary artists making art that is at odds with its time by being obscure or deliberately baffling, I’m not sure where the art is that is trying to respond to or take on the political and economic narratives we are currently facing. Indeed if you consider Damien Hirst’s retrospective at the Tate, here is someone who is, arguably, fully part of that financial elite and who is making art for them, in their own image. I once read an interview with Michael Craig Martin, one of Hirst’s tutors at Goldsmiths, who suggested that Hirst was playing a complicated game with money. Maybe so but it doesn’t appear to be one that challenges the use of money or the operations of the market. What is a diamond encrusted platinum skull but a fetish for the wealthy?

Obviously its difficult to produce art that takes on political themes without producing something trite or sentimental. Examples of successful political art aren’t that numerous. Guernica of course, Grosz, Dix, Heartfield too. John Berger and Peter Fuller both proposed that making art, if you are serious about it, is a political act in itself and a challenge to the dominant visual culture of the age, advertising. And I suppose that’s where I stand at the moment. But I’m not sure that’s going to worry executives at Barclay Bank.

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Slow motion car crash

Popped in this morning to the launch event of slow motion car crash, a kinetic sculpture of sorts, which will see a Volkswagen Golf crash into a shop wall at the rate of 7mm an hour.
The venue is an empty shop on Saville Row in Newcastle and is part of the month long AV festival. The artist Jonathan Schipper was present apparently having flown in just for the opening before getting a noon flight back to New York. How do people get these jobs?
Is crashing a car slowly into a wall art? Quite possibly, though suspect it will be a bit too obscure for most passers by but I got a little custard tart and an enamel badge at this mornings launch so I’m happy.

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