Saturday, 28 December 2013

Presenting Absence (No 2)

‘Black’ is a sequence of four short-term exhibitions / installations / events (delete as appropriate) to be staged over an eighteen month period in a domestic cellar space of artist Stuart Edmundson’s house in Salford, North-West England.
So far, so 1990s, but the twist here is the fact that only the first 20 of the e-mailed invitees to acknowledge attendance can actually attend the launch bash. Conversations about the ‘art’ displayed are the primary concern, along with a liberal dash of beery conviviality and a temporary fuck-you to the choppy waters of funding applications and the marketplace.  
Considering the fact that Edmundson has predicated the function of the space as an enforced absenting of a large percentage of a prospective audience, the perfect artist would be one who, if not exactly making an effort to remove the art-object from proceedings, at least makes an effort to trim things back to essentials. Hence the opening gambit of handing over the space to Joe Devlin and his new piece 'Necrophagous Shadows'.
 Devlin has previously used the marks, stains and readers doodlings left in library books as a starting point for his work, ‘Necrophagous Shadows’ is more physically ambitious than his usual neo-conceptual output but remains equally enigmatic and self-contained. A gaggle of plinths radiate from one corner of the cellar illuminated by a desk lamp sat on the floor. Each is topped by a freestanding image of the shadow of an art object cut-out from an image in an art magazine.                                                                                                                                                                                                       
The casual grouping of plinths are really clunky skeletal echoes of functional plinths: either too narrow, too shallow, too high, or too low to be blankly reusable display supports their peculiar dimensions dictated by their shadow images positions within the source magazines numbered pages.                                                                                                           
With an inflection of anamorphic distortion the small shadow-shapes are all profoundly different from each another - one a linear fine archers bow motif, another a wonky Poirot-style moustache shape, others a miniature flattened Brancusi, a black corn-chip curl, and on and on. It’s impossible to reconstruct the absent form producing these shadows.
Visible vacuums, the tracing of an absence, vagrant bits; these are echoes of absences, awkwardly contextualized in a domestic space with a limited audience and blankly refusing a meaning, with the lack of a written attempt to elucidate the critical dimension of the piece acting as an additional absence.
The titling of the install - ‘Necrophagous Shadows’ - seems to be another destabilizing addition to the affair; a sarcastic acknowledgement of the excessive gothic lardings favoured by some contemporary practitioners and a pointer to the conceptual notions undercutting the display.
The life of an art object isn’t predicated on it being fixed, motionless, but on its semi-transparency, its fluidity as a trigger of associations which themselves shift in relationship with each other. 
Of equal importance, a play with stuff - materially imperfect, bloody-mindedly solid and soiled - has the added ingredient of the auric quality of matter and the additional edge of psychological invasiveness that thingness brings.

The simple fact of things in the world, stubborn reality, allows a shifting perspective to be applied but is completely indifferent to defining constructs, no matter how smart or insightful.

Things simply are. Any art work degenerates into an embodied ideology, which is both inevitable, necessary, and, often, rather tragic. 

Crikey, somehow the whole event seems to make sense!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Presenting Absence (No. 1.)

Considering the fact that writing organizes human thought into a structured linearity (a narrative event), it’s sobering to reflect how insanely random everyday thoughts generally are: like a bee in a bucket or idiot spaghetti in a badly made crate. 

In response, plenty of contemporary art embraces the chaos and excess of day-to-day existence; other work pares things down to the point of using different forms of absence as a productive device.

From its establishment as a visual trope (truism), the place of the monochrome within the historical lineage of abstraction seems fairly straightforward. In reality the skeletal framework of potential interpretive perspectives on any bastardized contemporary offshoot of the ‘genre’ is a much more tangled and chaotic mess than any A to B to C simple family-tree model may suggest. Matters are not helped by artists insistence on taking the reductive simplifications of Modernism up strange creative side-alleys. 

One such example is Deb Covell’s exhibition ‘Zero’ at Manchester’s increasingly impressive ‘Untitled Gallery’; a half-dozen rectangles of acrylic paint playing with the physical fact of paint as stuff.

The intentionally grey walls of the show’s installation helps to emphasis the extreme contrast of the yin and yang of black and white layers of paint glued together by the hidden infrastructure of an acetate sheet. A simple twinning of absences.

It goes without saying that the act of building a painting is not the same as constructing an image. Equally the use of paint itself doesn’t necessarily indicate the procedure of ‘painting’. Here Covell seems more interested in forcing paint into a sculptural form more indicative of a sheet of paper or swatch of cloth; the surfaces, however, lack the purity of absolute flatness, the smooth fluctuating thickness of the paints topography radiating a stubborn thingness.

One piece brings to mind a cartoon handkerchief hanging on a nail, or a sleeping bat; another horizontal floor piece an accidentally kicked floor rug; two others show a tasteful fold to a corner revealing a pliable marzipan thickness to all the pieces. A constant is the light repelling, dead plasticity to the deformed rectangles of acrylic paint.

The end results are impersonations of paintings; comic narratives of hapless substance afflicted by the gravitational tug of time.

Under the primary pressure of its concrete object-ness, the surfaces are never allowed to act as a support for brushstrokes or marks, the pieces serve as absences, architectural punctuations and surfaces at one-and-the-same time, without comfortably satisfying any of these criteria.

So finally as three-dimensional events refusing a function the spectre of ‘aesthetics’ is allowed to sneak into the frame. 

That’s really asking for a fight. 

Tasteful indeed but maybe they’re not so polite afterall.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Art Party

Scarborough is one of those British seaside resorts which seem forever stuck in an indeterminable period of the not-too-recent past. As such, it’s an interesting meeting place for the more daringly nomadic representatives of the various UK arts bodies and sub-cultures. All there to attend a collaborative event at Sarborough’s ‘The Spa’, organized by artist Patrick Brill a.k.a. Bob and Roberta Smith and the Crescent Arts Centre, and aimed at ‘debating the future of arts and education.’

Politely referred to as faded grandeur, ‘The Spa’ is a post-Apocalypse Tracey Island multiplex perched at one end of the bay. It has the ambience of a conference centre after a ten year bender but it’s still affectingly impressive. 

The three central hour long group presentations used the standard art chat format of half a dozen people seated at a table drinking water and opining on things in general. The potentially irritating delivery of laboured philosophical haikus, trips down memory lane and disconcertingly odd tangential musings still could not hide the fact that the contradictory creature the career artist is clearly much better at entertainingly performing itself than an administrator is at justifying the castrating box-ticking ‘professionalization’ of art. 

Less a debate than a series of loose meanderings and interjections, with no clear binding core values, it at least had the strength of not being easily transcribed into a sound-bite for the ‘culture industries’ and of being prepared to criticize the suffocating authority of the economically useful as a simplistic fuel for future ‘arty’ fiddlings.

 Unfortunately, these days even that seems like an achievement.

Things never got really heated just a tad tepid when the realpolitik of ‘creative partnerships’ attracted a less than flattering aside, much to the irritation of one of its peevish advocates.

Rather than the pallid grip of further bureaucratization, at the moment the UK ‘arts scene‘ is desperately in need of a liberal dollop of anarchic creativity (both smart and witless).

Bob and Roberta Smith’s ‘Art Party’ might suffer from migraine-inducing onion-layers of intention - whilst quite possibly still being art - but if it’s a bit muted as a full-bloodied party at least it’s an effort in foregrounding the social boxing of a post-’Relational Art’ event as a positive starting point in addressing some thorny issues.

And the fish and chips were pretty good.


Sunday, 17 November 2013

Three Cheers For Objects

‘Images’ are ‘free-floating’ - needless to say, fundamentally different from the finite expensive object. Even though there’s been a rearguard action in the art-market to push the financial worth, the cost of art objects, through the ceiling (Hirst’s ‘appropriated’ jewel covered skull being the most high profile contemporary example), instinctively there just seems something plodding or inadequate to this display of wealth-power, tiresomely heavy-handed and unimpressive. 
Its not just the obvious second-hand ‘playing the markets’ strategy; the still relatively new fluidity of images through electronic networks, their speed of movement and disposability, makes the exchange value of objects just curiously old-fashioned to the point of being completely pointless.
Or is it that simple?
Any flow of energy can be dammed, redirected, downright manipulated, whilst being made to appear organic, chaotically unmediated, a purity to merely experience.
So let’s start considering the commodity-fetish (after all Santa is on the way) as peculiar way stations, gnomic fingerprints exposing social mores and cultural perspectives.
Worryingly, maybe we can’t even see ourselves, can’t step back from being enveloped in a skin of motivating desires and concerns, without the object, the willfully crafted stuffs of the world, as a distancing device and an inroad into a communal psyche.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013


Ever since a hairy status monkey scratched at mud with a stick drawing is inevitably with us. 

From the architectural drawings of a Utopian dreamer to the graphic goth doodles of adolescent ennui, its near infinite flexibility as a vehicle for dreamy speculation is a constant seductive pleasure.

Mark-making may well be both the first step in attempting to map a structural underpinning to the actual chaos of the world and a precursor to developing the concept of individual consciousness. The simplest mark punctuating the sameness of its ground with an intimate gesture.

Line drawings themselves are models of dictatorial organization, especially as most are executed on standardized, mass-produced white rectangles of paper. From picturing things to pictures as things, whichever fashionable philosophical conundrum currently fuels the circulating social currency of ‘art’ can usually be pithily summarized by a few lines on a scrap of paper.

However, the criteria dictating that which qualifies an action as a drawing are, to say the least, a bit vague; Richard Long leaving tracks in a field with his Wellington boots, Gordon Matta-Clarke  amending the wall of a building with a crescent-shaped hole, John Cage’s scores - all can easily be defined as a drawing, keeping in mind the fact that people are intuitively very good at understanding the centrality of context in the construction of meaning in any language’s functional articulation.

Creative spontaneity isn’t actually the primary strength of the act of drawing; an apparent simplicity which hides a sophisticated abbreviation of concerns outside the playground of the visual is.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Scheibitz And Pieces

Form as Content. 

Content as Form. 

It’s a quandary.

The previously discredited contentious investment in Formalism’s insular bickering, a monastic essentialism both irritating and pompously magnificent in its vague certainties, has seemingly and ironically been given a new lease of life by the emergence of parallel Formalisms; quirkily reductive morphologies tweaked to carry their producer’s fingerprint.

Currently housed in the Baltic Centre For Contemporary Art, Gateshead, North-East England, ‘One-Time Pad’, a sizeable Thomas Scheibitz retrospective of work done over the last five years, is a fine example.

Scheibitz plays with an apparently feigned essentialism which is in reality as indebted to the functional forms of bottles and containers as it is to Cezanne’s pictorial building blocks. A restricted alphabet and architecture of basic dunce-hat cones, cubes and rectangles cross-fertilizes 3D sculptural assemblages and large painting / drawings which use occasionally mixed and unrefined toxic primaries. 

The paintings graphically parade a space which is impossible outside conventional geometries, the spatial concision making even the smaller, human-scaled pictures ones that imply forms temporarily congealing or being reassembled: not exactly fluid but completed by instability and absence.

The material weight of paint is never foregrounded as heavy, shitty, coloured muck and only really exposes itself as a light scruffy scuffing coating some of the free standing sculptures; the convenient trope of the mannered ‘painterly’ taken to task as a vehicle of expression.

Scheibitz ammunition is actually both obvious and irritatingly archaic: Modernism’s tenants of reductive functionality; decoration as boisterous seduction; paintings perceptual mobius loops - so why does the exhibition work so well?

The shows title, ‘One-Time Pad,’ a type of encryption apparently ‘alludes to the coding process the artist employs in his work, which the viewer is invited to unlock.’

In reality it’s not a matter of ‘unlocking’ the ‘encryption’ processes alluded to in Scheibitz’s promo blurb, the hybrid oddness of the works comes from a friction between presumed conventions of artistic application, parallel complexes of codes coexisting, eroding certainties and leaving the viewer stranded in an interpretative wilderness.

And that no longer seems a bad thing but strangely liberating. 

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Artists Emoting

Artists emoting.

You just can't stop them.

An image economy demands displays of sincerity and, in an ethical inversion of the feigned objectivity of the news media, the ‘artist’ is almost morally obliged to play with the textures of the subjective.

However, conflating raw emoting with an unsubtle histrionics just seems inappropriate; not necessarily naive and redundant but, more depressingly, merely an example of a restaging of a surveillance of sameness. 

Displays of tears flag up a collective introspection aestheticizing potential engagement, using the deadened cladding of three-dimensional ‘portraiture’ and assuming a complicity between artist and viewer in presenting an insinuation of an inner state, yet the flattening, insular mechanics of art protocol merely reveal a mutually agreed pose.

However the space of otherness cannot ignore the subjective context. If a smile merely apes the contours of the material as a means of delivery there is always a mutual awareness that the correct proportions of the imaginatively malleable, historically proscribed pose of the ironic is an eloquent abstraction. Sincerity, the differential continuity of an interior life, is actually parasitic and enmeshed with the delusional stance of autonomous agency.

Perhaps genuineness begins to exist in the attempt to fabricate an awareness of selfhood; a momentary pointer towards a belief in expression as a critique of the limits of a strained individuation.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Nonsense And Gaps


They really don't know who they are. 

Or do they?

Following his death in Lisbon in 1935, Anglophile Portuguese Modernist poet Fernando Pessoa, although rarely published, was discovered to have accumulated a substantial back catalogue of scribblings and musings regarding the act, and fact, of being a writer. 

His contemporary standing is built on the fact that much of his output, discovered in a trunk of articles following his death, was executed in the voice and language of a parade of ‘heteronyms‘ - extreme versions of pseudonyms with distinct biographies and personalities of their own.

In contemporary ‘art’ practice the idea of the ‘double’ is nearly always a thinly veiled ‘me,’ even if that ‘me’ is a compilation of ‘us’-ness using undigested theory-text picked up from dust-jackets and half-remembered college seminars as a platform for a moral high ground ( often neatly sidestepping responsibility for addressing the problem of a qualitative dimension).  

Here’s where the apparent autobiographical volte-face of literary anarchist and S and M buff Alain Robbe-Grillet becomes a useful pointer

‘ “Articulated” language,...,is structured like our lucid consciousness, which is to say, according to the laws of meaning. Thus, it follows directly that it is incapable of accounting either for an external world that is precisely not us or for the restless ghosts within us. But at the same time, I do have to use this material, language, however ill-suited it may be, because it is this lucid consciousness - nothing else - that finds fault with nonsense and gaps.’ 

Odds And Ends


The contemporary version. 

Collected bits and bobs.

What’s it all about then?

In contemporary ‘art’ practice the question often remains how does one successfully gain the freedom to compile odds-and-ends and cultural detritus and present the end-results as carrying the imprimatur of ‘art’? How does one present a play with stuff as ‘art’?  More accurately, how does one play correctly with stuff to make the engagement artful, or, at worst, appear usefully artful?

The job in hand may seem to be to successfully cello-tape an elusive logic to the component bits rather than suffocate under a turgid wash of coherence; a noodle tangle of linear chronologies allowing digressions, dead-ends, repetitions, and shifts in perspective built on a controlled architectural ideational foundation to proceedings, leading inevitably to old-school aesthetic considerations (the devil’s always in the details).

Further success could depend upon a playful misunderstanding of the expected rote means of display - text, objects presented, informed environment, cultural subculture ‘knowingness’ - to fragment the presumption of a simplistic, directive authorial whip-hand. 

However, objects are circumscribed by the era in which they are produced; ideas nesting in objects organically benefit from the newly elastic conceptual boundaries of a playground of intentions which is promiscuously intimate with a relentless tsunami of digital imagery.

Archiving can become art’s default mode, an uncreative parasitic administrative impulse; not systematic enough to warrant the clothing of a scientific taxonomy but banal enough to simultaneously legitimize parallel histories, a thirst for measurable truths demoted to the merely measurable.

Too often the resulting sculptural collections grounded in the material excess of the quotidian’s flow of surplus ‘things’ no longer achieves the potency of a fetish - the event status of a ‘readymade’ - but sits as an elegant car-crash of leftovers lacking even the simplifying virtue of a narrative.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Books And Thatness

Books. Ban them all. Every one of them.

According to virtual communal web librarian Wikipedia

‘A lover of books is usually referred to as a bibliophile a bibliophilist, or a philobiblist, or, more informally, a bookworm’.

(‘Philobiblist’ really should be repopularized in common parlance, it manages to be both pompous, dignified and suggests a fiercely anal cleric with God most definitely on his / her side.)

The rollicking yarns the educational establishment thinks will successfully snare the wandering attention of dissolute ‘yoof’ are rarely as imaginatively off-kilter as the average person’s fantasy world.
Morally uplifting, state sanctioned novellas are generally prosaic, plodding and generic, their main attraction being the predictability of their narrative arc. Hence the universal deflating of lungs when a classroom is faced with the irritating keenness of a class dullard chasing institutional brownie points with a terrifyingly shallow analysis of a set texts subplots and thematics.

This muffled dirge rarely penetrates the skull of the moody pupils at the back of the room; still psychically traumatized by the previous evenings two chapters of William Burroughs, or suffering from a migraine induced by James Elroy’s insane retro-journalism. 

In reality the best books always retain the feeling of illicit texts passed from hand-to-hand under counters wrapped in brown paper - introductions to a bizarre Masonic-style cult with its own rules and concerns.

This is most definitely compounded by the sheer invasive physical ‘thatness’ of 
book-as-object: book as musty smell; book as a diary of stains and accidents; book as a compilation of pretentious musings nestling between the hard black print in a cramped and mannered hand. 

Yet the consistent physicality of the pleasing banality of a standardized oblong slab can’t hide the fact that different books have different weights regardless of their tangible mass. It’s not a matter of gravitas, more the differing degrees of success in defying gravity, in undermining the ‘now’ and its repetitions, its unbreakable laws, and proposing healthy differences in perspective and focus. 

To further complicate matters, in parallel with this is a books automatic complicity with all other books. The social environment may now be seen as a surface to be read but this is a conceptual model which could only exist after the invention of the printing press; after all books are still a relatively new form. Volume (depth) is revealed to be a pile of slices of speculative organization waiting to be spread out, flattened into one large page documenting human folly or charting salvation.

An organized noise or self haunting ghost, heartfelt juvenilia or a twinge of nostalgia, baring the illusion of identity or exposing the human animals flexibility of character traits - it really depends on the mood of the day or the degree of existential angst chucked up by the quotidian’s enforced repetitions.
Always keeping in mind the fact that books can also make stupidity into a viable cultural currency; unreflective tick lists of bigotry.
Actually maybe they should be banned, nothing but trouble after all. 

Transparent Things


Placing stuff in a space.

What’s the point! Really, what is the point?

Well, it’s interesting to talk about, or write about, or both.

What it also is, very often, is not worth doing. 

Expanding on Hans Ulrich Obrist, Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier notion of ‘an exhibition that could constantly generate new versions of itself’ by collecting ‘a growing series of artists instructions’, Manchester City Gallery has decided that it would be a good idea for artists to ‘Do It’, then forcefully demonstrated that the ‘It’ probably isn’t worth doing after all.

The shouty, excitable, fun-for-the-whole-family ‘event’ status of the affair should not be encouraged even if it is the default mode of the majority of government funded institutions (or ‘shops’ depending on your perspective). 

Conversely the whole affair is tastefully presented with a predictable lower-case title and the restrained pastel shades of Farrow and Ball which is even more grating. 

Text on a wall is still indeed a thing, a physically substantial object, but it keeps the operation of the works as an instructive, directive formula. Ideas remain as transparent things operating between substance and the backlog of latent imagery that lives in our communal and individual heads.

The strength of the more engaging artists’ propositions is the fact that they haven’t been anchored in the banality of matter and retain the energy of a throwaway observation that gets under the skin.

Completely missing this point, the gallery and a handful of contemporary artists who really should know better have actually ‘realized’ some of the less unhinged propositions.

The end result looks like a ridiculously well-funded student exhibition.

Argue about ‘it’, think about ‘it’, even write ‘it’ down if you really must but please, please, please don’t actually do it.