Sunday, 11 February 2018

John Stezaker

The most confident and playful exhibition on display in Manchester (UK) at the moment is the relatively simple twenty or so collages by John Stezaker at the Whitworth.

Often the collages are grouped according to formal or spatial consistencies in the end results. In one grouping anatomical studies are spliced, juxtaposed and cojoined into hybrid creatures of the front and back of torsos. More frequently his raw materials are an archival accumulation of studio portraits of B-movie actors, old postcards and promotional film stills, the outdatedness of the source material immediately giving an otherworldliness to the pieces adding to their pictorial strangeness.

So profile shots and full on portraits (both male and female) are cut and jigsawed into almost feasibly coherent wholes deformed by spatial inconsistencies. Rectangular areas of nature or geological illustrations cover areas of faces but horizon lines or the sinuous line of a tree follows the features of the face. These act as a window into an alternative reality but seem to echo the dynamics of the portraits formal construction and the relations between figures.

Stezaker’s considered cuts and excisions are not merely second-hand techniques and devices lifted from early Cubist collages and Surrealists games, although these influences are clearly present. They allow images to telescope into layered depths and for shadows to be sandwiched into static forms.

The drag and flow of suggested cinematic narratives are held static for a forensic looping by the viewers eye literally through and into the image’s component parts. And although a simple collages construction takes very little time this stands in stark opposition to the time needed to conceptually digest the static implications of these spatial games.

The pieces actually work as physical statements of a stubborn refusal of the badgering directive and authoritarian flow of meaning in contemporary visual media, the didactic nature of that which claims to be a democratisation of communicative potentials. 

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Cecily Brown: Shipwreck Drawings

Cecily Brown has become a significant presence in contemporary painting. 
Her large paintings often balance De Kooning’s pale patches of paint with echoes of the pastoral washes of English watercolours and Bacon and Freud’s meaty applications. A loose allusion of faux-gestural marks and a disciplined car-crash of organic forms building into a sliding accumulation of vegetable chaos straining to indicate an animal, a figure or a torso.
The twitchy sliding layers of almost-imagery can become strangely claustrophobic. Often the paintings suggest a flighty grabbing of subjects, themes, historical models, of types of representation.
She smears the chaotic minutae of Bosch’s Garden Of Earthly Deights into near abstraction with the unreliability of memory and the necessity of images to still the erosive movement of time a constant in the paintings.
With Brown’s work it feels as though there is a suspicion and disdain for the seductive properties of matter tempered by a resigned love for the stuff - seduction, penetration, pleasure and pain all alluded to. 
As a counterpoint to this play with the substantial substance of paint, Brown currently has an exhibition of ‘Shipwreck Drawings’ at Manchester (UK) Whitworth Galleries. 
The display shows two groupings of nine drawings, one of eight, along with a more conventional horizontal hang of three drawings and two isolated smaller ones.
The wall text / promotional blurb notes that all drawings are reworkings of areas from four paintings of post-shipwreck survivors; three by Eugene Delacroix, ‘Christ Asleep During The Tempest’ (1853) and an accompanying preparatory study and ‘The Shipwreck Of The Don Juan’ (1840), as well as Theodore Gericault’s seminal ‘The Raft Of The Medusa’ (1818 -19)
Often they have large areas of muted primary coloured washes, occasionally supplemented with a grassy green, overdrawn with grey-black charcoal and pencil line drawings of groupings and clusters of bodies. These primary washes tend to move the eye around the picture space in opposition to the suggested movement of the linear complexity of the studies. 
Heads, torsos,and bodies seem almost compressed into vagually triangular scrambles of shapes. They seem chaotically restricted rather than huddled which is fairly reasonable for images culled from images of shipwreck survivors on a fragile raft of wood.
And yet the theatrical pile and tangle of suggested imagery lacks the gravity of the physical bulk and sweat of human bodies. 
A strong reminder that Brown’s enterprise is very much a restaging of earlier compositions and images and an indicator of her practice as an offshoot of the 1980s artworld appropriationist bent.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Ellsworth Kelly: Liverpool Tate

                                                             'Broadway' (1958)

Liverpool UK has a number of high profile galleries, not least the Liverpool incarnation of the Tate gallery franchise. 

Settled in the relatively small, but not inconsiderable, ground floor gallery is an excellent mini-retrospective of prints and paintings by American artist Ellsworth Kelly. 

Kelly’s work is an exercise in high-quality wrongness, each distortion of the flat, coloured and rectangular seems retrospectively obvious. Obvious in the same way a successful melody seems contained and complete, even prior to being heard. 

The elegant incorrectness of Kelly’s best work demands sustained attention. Its refined variance from the strictures imposed by High Modernisms simplification to colour and surface is a continual pleasure.

As somatic deformations of an architectural purity, traps for the eye, Kelly’s paintings loop the experience of the graphically attractive back to the act of reading the design. Looking becomes thinking about looking whilst simultaneously enjoying the activity. 

As a return for time spent in front of any object it is hard to know how that can be improved on.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Steve Hunt: UNITY - Memories Of A Free Festival

Hunched and scowling on a corner on the outskirts of Manchester’s Northern Quarter, ‘The Crown And Kettle’ pub eyes suspiciously the city’s self-professed ‘cultural quarter’ and its mercantile infighting. 

The walls of the pub are currently home to Steve Hunt’s photographs communally entitled ‘UNITY: Memories Of A Free Festival’. 

The pictures are belatedly printed black and white ‘documentary’ photographs of small groupings of attendees at an anti-racism UNITY festival staged in Chorlton in Manchester in 1994. 

Hunt has a good eye for spotting if not moments of disunity then points of apparent individual introversion within a crowd. Even if this interpretation of the images is very much imposed by the viewer, Hunt’s cumulative compilation of moments which suggest this reading have a destabilizing effect on the festivals theme of joyous UNITY. 

Not, to be fair, a dismissive undermining of the festivals good intentions, more a suggestion of questioning uncertainty.

1994 was roughly the point at which digital photography began its rise to dominance, a form of image construction which dispenses with the lick of reality implied by older printed photos.

In reality photos were always things which acquired value through their different potential uses. Whereas a mediated flow of images is controlled information, instructions pretending to be one-side of a conversation, the photographic print is a record of a process of fixing an image and can have a number of functions at one-and-the-same time - memory enhancer, a record of an incident, a form of surveillance, and so on.

As photographs are objects divorced from one simple function, solid material facts as much as congealed movement peeled from reality, their immobile indifference to the viewers demands makes them alien artifacts from somewhere else. Even if that somewhere is our own pasts.

In this way, the passive irresponsibility of older photographs-as-things, their refusal to be easily defined, there stubborn mute there-ness, stands in opposition to the deadening economy of images, the contemporary digitized world of an excess of images; here today and largely gone today.

However, like a hazy memory or a half-seen event, all photographs nag at us, demand interpretation.

These pictures now sit at an almost distant moment in time. With all such photographs there is a temptation to indulge the viewer in the warming certainties of nostalgia. 

But these prints willingly embrace the entropy of their physical decay, the fact of old processes slipping from use, the imperfections of their production processes controlled by the artist, all suggesting a less clear framing of historical events, both culturally and privately.

The inevitable end-point for the medium, its moment of disappearance, is being used as a new user function. One we still have yet to fully understand.

Monday, 13 February 2017

John Hyatt: Rock Art

From 04 February through to 29 March 2017, the galleries at Manchester’s HOME art centre are the stage for a grouping of collaborative installations, sculptural pieces, and digital and audio works by John Hyatt. 

The whole affair, loosely predicated on the theme of the ego of the artist and its transcendence by communal activity, is accompanied by a series of four early evening Friday night music and cabaret events, all MC’d by Hyatt, under the title CLUB BIG. CLUB BIG being a reference to an actual Club in Milan where Hyatt performed in the 1980s whilst a member of Post-punk musical trio The Three Johns.   

The walls of the area designated CLUB BIG has a thin peppering of art student paintings, a cut-out figure, object sculptures, and digital playback screens, all showing work engaging with the concept of prospective alter-egos for Hyatt the artist and educationalist.

The HOME publicity goes further than just presenting Hyatt as both an artist and teacher announcing him as a Renaissance-style polymath: artist, musician, scientist and punk professor. Although the claims of multidisciplinary competence may be a tad overblown, the gallery promotional blurbs expand further on his impressive skills-base - photographer, designer, printmaker, author and sculptor. 

The press release and exhibition pamphlet add a jokey reverential tone and appear to be a further comedic layer of ego-buffing; Hyatt is an ‘irrepressible explorer’,‘transdisciplinary theorist’, ‘one of the North West’s most beloved and exciting artists’, ‘an irrepressible and influential force’ and a ‘genuine original collaborator-innovator.’  

Hyatt’s solo work has certainly jumped around different art forms. 

Recent paintings are generally filled with cartoonish vegetation, often toxically bright Edens with Hyatt’s figure striding purposefully through the compact of Surrealism’s impossible space and Outsider Art’s earnest escapism.

Hyatt’s digital prints ‘Rossendale Fairies’ (2014), photographic enlargements of blurred winged creatures, were allegedly fairies frolicking in the sunshine; a clear reference to the 1917 Cottingley Fairies hoax. Teenagers Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths photographed themselves with drawings of fairies pasted onto cardboard and convinced the credulous members of the newspaper reading public of their authenticity.
His most high-profile artwork is probably still the impressively tall ‘Tilted Windmills’ public sculpture sprouting from the pavement in Manchester centre’s Exchange Square. Unfeasibly large replicas of the popular children’s rotating sand castle bling, they are as proudly ostentatious as a Damien Hirst fabrication.
A constant is these examples is Hyatt’s intentional occupation of a peculiar territory between cynical, self-promoting showmanship and a stubborn, almost childish, belief in the transformative potential of imaginative play.

For all its trinkets and constructions, reference points and echoes of historical models of art play, ‘Rock Art’ is a less self-reflective or revealing event than a genuine retrospective would have been: the term ego may be bandied about but is never explained, the concept of an alter-ego cited but never really exhibited.

The exhibition physically announces itself before reaching the gallery entrance in the form of a Hyatt-themed merchandise shop: there’s Hyatt collaborative and solo CDs, tee-shirts, cups, badges, and on and on.

Once the product placement plinths are negotiated, the galleries contain a handful of interactive areas, headphones for music and digital playback screens.

‘The Great Deception’ (2017) is a large, approximately ten feet tall, boxy sculpture of the Trojan horse covered in the tiny mirrored squares of a mirrorball. Inside the empty MDF and wood construction a disembodied voice relates instructions on intergalactic travel, the horse is a fantasy spaceship womb and a disco bauble.

The implications of male aggression and the cult of the egotistical leader who often fuels its battlefield release feeds into the black and white imagery on the three long hanging banners of ‘The Anticipation’ (2017). Putin, Trump and planet Mars, the god of war in the planetary zodiac of meaning, all appear on these parodies of early punk records cheaply collaged covers.

The series of hangs accompany the directive theatrical rope barrier leading into CLUB BIG. The moments waiting in anticipation of the evenings revelries seem to be being compared to the build up towards the fallout from the butting egos of the world leaders. 

There’s two independent digital ‘video’ work.

‘Brainbox’ (2017) is a two channel piece: the right hand playback has Hyatt speculating on the human brains capacity to create meaning for itself; the left shows a shifting of mass in a granular powdering of vibrated sand, the work referencing Hyatt’s and mathematician Jon Borresen’s earlier joint work ‘Creative Spiral’ (2016). 

The three channel piece ‘Three Wishes’ (2017) is really a rejigged compilation of old footage: words cut out of lines of poetry filmed on a vibrating surface shift around, the organic curls of moving sand forms overlay Hyatt’s face, the geology of the Peak District imperceptibly moves on the final screen. 

‘The Collection And Reading Room’ (2017) is a pop-up lending library housed in a white gallery cube of the type seen at art fairs and biennales. The inside walls hold top to bottom white shelves supporting copies of Hyatt’s large collection of superhero comics. 

The hero’s identity hidden behind an alter-ego is a perennial in these stories but the notional idea of surface camouflage is taken further. The display cube’s external walls are coated in a regular pattern of large red dots, these bring to mind the red dots indicating a gallery sale and the atomic unit of the Ben-Day dots which construct early comic book imagery. 

In an ‘art’ space they cannot avoid also insinuating a nod towards the Pop Art productions of Roy Lichtenstein and, tellingly, the endless fabrication of spot paintings rolled out by showman artist Damien Hirst.

To further muddy loose connections between the installations elements, a shallow surrounding display case houses various rocks and stones. Each has a couple of text panels relating a spotty holidaying adolescent’s escape into the fantasy worlds between a comic’s covers.

Tentative connections but manageable if the whole thing remained self-contained. 

The dotted tomes can, however, be read in a cafeteria area serving a John Hyatt inspired infusion, an attempt by artist Mike Chavez-Dawson to distill and transcribe personal qualities into an invigorating assault on nostrils and palate. 

In the cross-over arena of pop and art, there are notable predecessors. Raymond Pettibon, with his comic-book and cartoon influenced drawings and designs for LA punk bands, has himself become culturally enmeshed with the noise of Black Flag and their contemporaries. The visuals of Pettibon’s designs are as resonantly influential as the music it augments and fine tunes.

Hyatt’s output is a much more fragmented compilation of art historical styles and procedures for producing ‘art,’ as indebted to Fluxus performance events as it is to techniques of ‘appropriation’ so prevalent in 1980s art school culture.

With this in mind, proclaiming oneself a ‘Punk Professor’ is, presumably, an ironic reference to the art-worlds over-reliance on irony. Or something along those lines. 

However, ‘Punk’ (whatever that actually may be) was dependent on a spikiness and irreverence, even to its own lineage; the stance of the professorial and academic, for all its implications of willful aloofness, upon a degree of specialism and intellectual rigour. Hyatt’s exhibition would benefit from a considerably more nuanced interplay between the two.

The ‘Rock’ of the exhibition title transmutes into the gray mineral versions (in the text and display cases surrounding the ‘Collection and Reading Room’ installation), into the sticky sugar tubes of confectionary rock (in the Hyatt-themed merchandise shop) and the rock strummings of the CLUB BIG musicians. Unfortunately, the component bits don’t seem to add up to anything close to the weight and heft of an actual rock.

Finally, the ‘Rock Art’ exhibition is momentarily diverting as an exercise in hijacking Nicolas Bourriaud’s popular socializing-as-art notion of contemporary practice and converting it into a means of self-promotion.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Amelia Crouch

From 29th July until 7th August 2016, art facilitators and gallery Castlefield (Manchester, UK) mounted an exhibition of screenprints, digital films, and wall-based text works by artist Amelia Crouch.
In her printed annotations disrupting Lara Eggleton’s supporting writings, Crouch quite reasonably notes that “words often lie behind what I do” rather than acting as the primary medium which concerns her. Words attachment to, and parallel operations to, images, line and colour as constructive communicative tools are more important for her output. As is the way these infect, reinforce and contradict each other.
Words may take shape in the drawn and written mark but shapes, forms, and their resonant ‘there-ness’ have a spatial presence which may influence words themselves. And visa versa.
So, in the short silent digital video ‘Double Over’ (2013) hands manipulate an origami- box of a ‘magic cube”, a cube of hinged rectangles and shifting surfaces reminiscent of the paper folding games of children. Play with the shape allows abutting areas of information - words, colours, designs - to be changed into various limited but random sequences of information parodying mutable sentence structures. 
A similar point seems to be the aim of the ‘Untitled (Prepositions)’ (2015) digital video in which a  woman in white articulates simple prepositions such as ‘over’, ‘on’ or ‘in’, whilst the actual position of an orange ball in a glass bowl of white balls changes. The validity of the spoken prepositions is necessarily questionably vague.
The ‘Sensible Objects’ (2014) prints appear to lift linear illustrations of points of physical contact between the body and its outside.They have the attractive graphic formal clarity of an early Peter Saville design and the infantilizing simplicity of a corporate ‘mission’ statement. Unlike the digital projections, there’s no movement here, just inscribed solidity, any plasticity operates on an interpretative or conceptualizing level.
As Eggleton’s text describes ‘ her videos ‘Ifs & Butts’ and ‘Ayes & Knows’ (both 2013), double columns of tickertape words (if and but; yes and know) travel up and down the screen, intermittently becoming part of longer words as letters fade in and out.’  Highlighted in black the conjoined letters of the ‘tickertape’ words act like a genetic spine running through the scrolling parade of random words sandwiching them.
Significantly, Crouch’s parred down ornamentation of bullishly bland text depends on repetitive vacuums of white, an orderly sequence of separations, to allow any chance of a mental purchase on her gnomic alphabet.
A concern with the necessary vacuum between things - which allows an atomization and reconstruction of both images and words - is emphasised in Crouch’s latest work, ‘Attention Is Rarely Directed To The Space Between The Leaves’.
The six minute digital video projection homes in on the whole and parts of trees, vegetation and plants; domestic and farmyard animals - all overdubbed with childish animal impersonations inappropriately allocated - and the illuminated spaces between these component bits.
It’s not an entirely successful work but the fact that its inclusion doesn’t stop the entire show from working reasonably well is down to Crouch’s implicit acknowledgment that, whatever dismantling and toying undertaken with words, she will never reveal an essential core to their operations. Language in all its manifestations, only makes sense when its doing its job, and this necessarily means its job in the real, big, everyday world.
So Crouch cannot avoid touching on memory as a parasitic dimension of half-truths, snagging tenaciously to our efforts to articulate nowness. Or an echo of spatially mobile lexicons of ‘signage’ in all their electronic and physical forms. Or the directive envelopes of institutional spaces. Or, probably most importantly, art and its own peculiar language obsessed dogmatic historical precedents.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Imitation of Life

The moving image and ‘films’ continue to rule the roost at Manchester UK’s HOME art centre with another exhibition, curated by Omar Kholief and the ever-present Sarah Perks, tapping into popular, critically reassessed motion pictures of yesteryear to theme the gallery displays.

A clear indication of the realpolitik of the institutions component departments, a promotion of hyper-capitalisms domination by technologies of display and communication and a government-satisfying pandering to the ex-college kids faintly remembered course curricula, it’s a convenient formula for structuring the galleries programme. 

This time round it’s the turn of ‘Imitation Of Life’, a film ostensibly about a young woman’s denial of her African-American lineage. With a little distance from 1959, it is apparent that race and gender were being used to question the American Dream’s ingrained social hierarchies and its genuine capacity to permit the reinvention of the self by its citizens.

A melodrama just sidestepping camp, the Douglas Sirk directed 1959 film, produced in the wake of Fannie Hurst popular 1933 source novel and the high profile John M Stahl’s 1934 film version, remains the most famous and most referenced incarnation of ‘Imitation of Life.’

Ablaze with a weird high definition kitschness, Sirk’s overheated emoting is now much admired. Whilst extremely popular with cinema audiences of the 1950s, his films were originally dismissed by critics as American society viewed through rose-tinted spectacles. Now they are considered as hiding the gimlet eye of an ironist.

His genius lies in the fact that the automatic inauthenticity of the melodrama doesn’t disallow sympathy - even for the unlikeable characters - due to the empty displays of conformity demanded of all the figures trapped in the mechanics of an ideological morass. 

The real-life tragedy of star Lana Turner’s daughter killing Turner’s boyfriend, the colourful soap opera cage of social mores insinuating the less than palatable realities of North American culture, the necessary construction and performance of self, and even the seductive opulence of the film’s pallet jarring with its weightier topics all make ‘Imitation of Life’ a fairly substantial and flexible springboard for artists’ speculations and productions.  

On the downside there is an over-reliance in the exhibition of bandying around the term melodramatic as if willing it to be flexible enough to apply to most of the exhibits which it is not. There is also the issue of using the grandiose description ‘installation’ for screens, photos and objects in the corner of a room ( Martine Syms’ potted history of ‘blackness’ in the US sitcom ‘S1:E1’) and the repeated rows of vigorously synthetic hair extensions covering a wall (Lauren Hasey’s ‘We The Ones (blackngold)’ ). 

Larry Achiampong’s six digital photomontages ‘Glyth’ (2013 - 2014) use attractively washed out family snaps. Co-opting the circular voids in a Baldesarri picture or static cue dots, a standardized black circle topped off by lipstick red cartoon lips replaces the heads of everyone pictured.

A transgressively daft echo of a racial stereotyping, this South Park minstrel revue defaces the heartfelt nostalgia of the family snap; their initial obviousness hides a smart, layered criticism of the use and abuse of the medium of photography itself.

Similarly darkly comical and self-critically effective is Jayson Musson’s ‘Art Thoughtz: How To Be A Successful Black Artist’ (2010). A short digital video looking like a youtube post, Musson adopts his alter-ego of artist Hennessy Youngman, a character who lists every cliched presumption about the ways a contemporary black artist can operate to succeed in the art market. No-one comes out of the monologue very well - artist, audience, curator, the gallery system generally - but the half-truths and misdirections are funny and revealing in equal measure. 

Like Archiampong’s photomontages the medium is also the message, probably the reason that both artists works are some of the most successful in the show. 

Things get a little more opaque in Sophia Al-Maria’s distended and extended, deformed and glossy reproductions of facial whitener packaging (‘Scarce New Flowers’ (2016)). Even more so in Tony Lewis’s two splendid, materially confusing text drawings. Using paper, tape, correction fluid, pencil, graphite powder, free-floating and partial words, they point to the centrality of language and its function in sculpting any sense of identity. 

The nearest thing to the overtly sculptural is Kevin Beasley’s wall-bound two metre diameter denim and resin piece ‘Untitled (Fades / Violas)’ (2015). It has the gluey sheen of a wet papier mache bowl and seems to have been left over from an alternative version of the exhibition. 

Jordan Casteel’s oil painting ‘Alto’ (2014) and collages ‘Mark 2’ and ‘Derek 2’ (2015) show isolated black men seated in, presumably, their domestic spaces. The semi-foetal huddle of the figure in ‘Alto’ is overseen by what appears to be a freestanding photograph of a woman; a distanced maternal character or a pictorial memory. There’s a little bit of spatial distortion but it’s rendered in a faintly conservative, art-school representational way which adds to its gentle ambience.

There’s a greater ambiguity about the space in Michael Armitage’s paintings on traditional Ugandan bark cloth. Courtyards, exterior or interior spaces; all are possible environments for the meeting of figures. One painting shows a kiss, another two people walking side-by-side. The bark cloth seems to dull down any harshness to the colours absorbed into washes and stains. The results seem like washed-out recreations of unreliable memories.

On the moving image front Loulou Cherinet’s ‘White Woman’ (20020 is a filmed dinner with all the guests African men. The camera pans 360 degrees around and around giving each seated dinner guest a couple of minutes to recount their personnel experiences of their relationships with white women. 

The men’s conversational stereotyping of women acts as a counterpoint to stories of their experience of being on the receiving end of such speculations. They give the impression of vacillating between descriptive honest and performing for the camera and each other.

Loretta Fahrenholtz’s video ‘Ditch Plains’ has a different kind of choreographed performance as dancers pose and move under the depressing sodium yellow light of early morning in a poor area of New York.

Jacolby Satterwhite ‘Matriarch’s Rhapsody’ (2014) presents an animated circling of his mother’s drawings of desirable objects. His ‘Reifying Desires 6’ (2014) uses 3-D sculptural forms, performing characters and tumbling vegetable and mineral shapes rendered in a swooping retro-graphic.

The gallery blurb states that HOME’s show ‘looks at the performance of racial politics in an evolving, digital world.’ 

The idea of an exhibition built on the ‘performance of racial politics’ sounds engagingly cynical and / or constructively questioning but the seriously overarching significance of ‘an evolving, digital world’ screams for a more in-depth overview of the casually presumed fluidity of identity than the exhibition permits. 

Indeed there is a degree of cynicism in some of the work regarding the convenient simplification to surface display occasionally invoked when addressing the politics of identity. This gives the whole affair much more bite than a previous HOME exhibition which skirted around Todd Haynes’ film ‘Safe’ without sinking its teeth into the meat of the thing.