Monday, 21 December 2015

[safe] at HOME

‘HOME’, Manchester UK’s newest art centre - theatres, cinemas, bars, restaurant and gallery, so not an insubstantial beast - is, at the moment, home to the visual art exhibition ‘Safe.’

‘Safe’ is populated by work directly inspired by Todd Haynes’ 1995 film of the same name or, as selected by curators Louise O’Hare and Sarah Perks, considered appropriate for inclusion in light of the film’s narrative or themes.

Not unlike the now defunct Cornerhouse’s Jacque Tati inspired ‘Playtime’ exhibition, also co-curated by Sarah Perks, some of the exhibits here pre-date the exhibition by a number of years. And like the previous exhibition - here with the possible exception of Jala Wahid’s photographic prints - are pieces uncomfortably shoehorned into the show.

O’Hare and Perks introductory pamphlet note that Haynes’ film ‘can be read as a reflection on climate change, sexual politics, the AIDS epidemic and suburban disillusionment.’ 

Later adding,‘Carol’s illness...and the social relations acted out in the film, made it a potent starting point for artists thinking through structures of patriarchy and institutional control, social etiquettes and hierarchies, invisible labour, infection, contagion, symptom and cure, physical responses to mental stimuli, bodily awkwardness, effects and affects.’

The first piece experienced by visitors is Laura Morrison’s ‘Sir You Will Doubtless Be Astonished,’ a flat, wall-sized construction of MDF and steel with an image on one side. Constructed from a perplexingly odd list of materials - plasticine, wax, ink, chalk and graphite - carrying a drawn and painted mage of a woman seated on steps and an area of notepaper white interrupted by a scrawled note. It seems confusingly unconnected with the Haynes’ movie. 

Unlike Morrisons’ freestanding wall work, Chris Paul Daniels’ is a new commission. The audio guide ‘Safe At HOME’ tangentially references the directive New Age speeches in the film, its manipulative mapping of the environment veers between mockery of community initiatives and architectural descriptions but lacks bite.

Whilst aurally negotiating the soundworks’ instructions, visitors need to physically weave through Michael Dean’s series of undersized MDF chairs and tables carrying lumpen abstract Henry Moore style crafted objects. Their unconsidered display does the length of gallery space no favours.

Another of the freshly commissioned works, a looped digital projection transferred from 16mm film, James Richards’ ‘The Bottom Of The World,’ is a two part affair.

First a tattooed young man wearing only white underpants stands facing the camera. He is dotted with fist-sized circles of what appear to be drying glue and white plaster. These are actually ‘prosthetic skin conditions’ and they seem to be echoed in the scuffed magenta paint on the background wall.  

He is followed by a similar static front shot of a woman wearing white briefs, her torso and arms spotted with mustard coloured bruises; brown, bruised arteries and shiny, weeping areas of reflective honey-yellow puddled in the dip of her collarbone. 

Finally, black and white digital simulation of speeded up time lapse film of wilting flowers - the background an area of a painting of a wolf attacking sheep - soundtracked by the repetitive beep of a life support machine then an echoing playback of the song ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night.’

At least Richards piece has the courage to balance the overt and implied in the source film with a dash of body horror schlock to spice up proceedings.

Yoshua Okon’s two screen ‘Fridge-Freezer’ is less convincingly maverick and considered. The looped two-channel digital video shows three interchangeable female estate agents, all dressed in fierce lipstick red suits, guiding the viewer around a pleasant but bland property. The screens are one element in an ‘installation’ room with corporate grey carpet, a teal settee (lifted from a scene in the movie) and ceiling high white drapes on its back wall. 

Its attempt to question ‘the artificial idea of safety in domestic space represented through the depiction of show homes as a sunny oasis of femininity’ is both a surface level play with the films substance and lacking in the banal opulence required to achieve its aims.

To make an exhibition which references a film as abstruse and thematically dense as ‘Safe’ successful requires a much more focused curatorial remit. 

The truth is ‘Safe’ , the original film, works well because of its refusal to be easily absorbed, its refusal to accommodate a simplistic political or social perspective.

Its real concern is that which is now fashionably termed ‘the liminal.’ Here liminality being a point of transition but also a condition which may never be transcended, a permanent position of marginality and uncertainty. 

Spatial isolation is therefore a prerequisite of this repositioning which allows distance, clarity and the momentary illusion of security. 

As a conceptual glue to proceedings it allowed Haynes to consider everything from the formal construction of scenes, its spacious and isolating architecture, the hierarchical politics of social groups, their chosen environments, the skin as a porous way-station, ingestion and rejection of food, the gulf between intimacy and sex, surface as border and reflection, etc, etc.

‘Safe’ is a complicated film which stands revisiting because it juggles all these things but prioritizes none of them. Unfortunately,‘Safe’ the current exhibition, is, too often, artists or curators cherry-picking issues from this dense weave and constructing a show in which too many works fail to live up to the potential of the rich source material.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Barthes and Quaife

In the UK, the letters B and Q generally reference a chain of retail park DIY superstores - playgrounds for generations of amateur builders - started by Misters Block and Quayle.

Alternatively ‘B/Q’ is Manchester (UK) Castlefield Gallery’s new exhibition in which artist Magnus Quaife dismantles French thinker and literary theorist Roland Barthes’ heartfelt imitations of painter Cy Twombly’s pastel toned, relatively highbrow abstractions, then constructs original Quaife’s from the fragments.

Barthes ‘Death Of The Author’ famously removed, or sidelined, the author as the primary creator of the meaning, or meaningfulness, of text; unpicking the nature of writing itself. His ‘S/Z’ analyzed a Balzac short story to further define the loose plurality of codes which weave through narrative structures. 

Most germane to Quaife’s exhibition of paintings, watercolours and photographs, ‘A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments’ assembled a book from fragments of previously published literature and Barthes own thoughts.

Once dynamically undermining of the previously accepted notion of the author, and by extension the creative artist full stop, Barthes’ questioning of a specific textual meaning and of authorial authority has become something of an art school orthodoxy of its own, a fact openly acknowledged by Quaife in an introductory presentation of his new work.

So, using reproductions of Cy Twombly’s paintings and of Barthes own fanboy transcriptions of Twombly’s style as a raw material, physically cut into ragged islands of colour, parodied in watercolour and moved sequentially around a monochrome blue ground in a looped series of slides, Quaife has taken Barthes literally. He has dismantled images of the French thinkers Sunday paintings and their acts of creative restaging to build something new.

In the largest work, one panel of a large diptych has painterly white impasto peppered with fragments cut out of Twombly poster reproductions and rephotographed catalogue pages of Barthes speculative parodies of Twombly’s ouevre. The other large white near square canvas has previously acted as a temporary holding surface for the fragments and is polluted by scrapes and marks left in the transference of the scraps from one surface to another.

It slowly becomes apparent that for Quaife ‘B/Q’ is both an act of homage and a blackly comic enactment of patricide.

The elephant in the room seems to be the works of Cy Twombly themselves.

Twombly’s productions often seemed an idiosyncratic collision of American and European strands of painting. Sometimes he has seemed too faux-academic and historically grounded for the American critical palate, just not as pragmatically and holistically graphic as American abstract paintings’ bold rectangles demanded.

Working Post-Pollock, he was never concerned with defensively cynical reconstructions of the liberated and gestural, his fluid moments of painting jostling in contradistinction to an authentically awkward and cramped aesthetic of application; stubby whorls and dribbles of paint sitting on an infinity of off-white, marks sometimes scratchy and indecisive as though produced by the weaker writing hand. 
However, for all his references to Classical myths and European poetry, Twombly always balanced the elusive particularities of the visual with an unspoken need to invest in haptic fact, a stubborn insistence that artists play with the stuff of paint; materially imperfect, solid and soiled as it may be. 
Destabilizing scatological echoes punctuate most of his Apollonian musings. His large paintings hang on a wall like elegant twitching carcasses; wounded, damaged but still dreamily airy spaces waiting to be filled with the substance of a discourse.
More than merely alluding to written text Twombly’s works simulate the often awkward physicality of making a mark; a grounding physicality under-acknowledged by Barthes’ fanboy transcriptions, intentionally overemphasized in Quaife’s work. 
Quaife’s act of parring the tangle of theory and literary allusion and speculation back to the painterly fact of Twombly’s pictures-as-things has an element of straight-faced comedy about the whole enterprise - a stumbling visual braille attempting, against all the odds, to have its own say, knowing damn well that it will fail.

Finally the tone here is simultaneously archaic, off-kilter and entirely contemporary because it senses the essential schizophrenia driving Barthes acts of transcription. 
For both Quaife and Barthes there is a keening for the simple pleasurable stupidity of painting a picture, undercut by a sophisticated knowingness of the operations of the pictured which never allows this to be an option.                                                                                                                

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Half Life Of A Miracle

Like the grating sonic chime of a synth drum on an early 80’s pop hit, an artists over investment in the contemporary potentials of digital media can very quickly reveal itself to be the seduction of an artist by a new tool. 

From a distance of years the results of these stumbling techno-seductions can still have a charm and attraction above and beyond a mere visual nostalgia.

Canny ‘Digital’ artists have learnt to indulge this love of retro-naffness by presenting increasingly layered visual compressions: art historical references and outmoded stylistic productions dictated by technology’s previous limitations sprinkled with the ‘Nowness’ of High Definition.

Fair enough. 

The ticking of government funding bodies boxes and the blatant promotion of computer technologies latest innovations may now be inseparable, especially in the space between many gallery curators ears, but as long as a critical unpicking of the medium used and of its uses remains intact in works produced the artists are doing their job.

Pat Flynn has been operating in this area for some time and his ‘Half Life Of A Miracle’ exhibition at Manchester (UK) Art Gallery is a summation of a decade refining the use of 3D computer graphics software to produce big pictures and digital animations of things which never really existed. 

It’s an impressively cold-bloodied and nihilistic affair: the images seem to announce concerns with a loss of an intimate tactility, death, an inability to communication and the perpetual failure of desire.

Finding things which look like famous art works of the past and riffing off them is a pretty standard way of proceeding; here explanatory labels make explicit connections with historical precedents, some relatively recent.

In ‘Cheeses’ Mondrian coloured wedges, wheels, angles of cheese shapes are grouped in an antiseptic space like a deli food promotion; another digital print has the top of a skull lifted from a Breughel peeping over the top of a white bowl; another a bucket of strings of lumpen sausage meat pink lifted from Hogarth.

‘Chocolate’ (2015), a seven foot vertical stack of chocolate brown chunks, is reminiscent of Donald Judd’s lines of boxy forms; seduction and desire re-injected into the corporate banality of Minimalism’s forms. 

It is, however, dependent on an overly simplistic reading of Minimalism when considering Judd’s unconvincing dismissal of the anthropomorphism inherent in his works human scale, its failed straining towards physical purity, the complex of political implications ingrained in the practice, and so on.

Similarly ‘Juice’ (2015) apparently a recreation of the pale vertical strips of a Modernist alter from a recently leveled local church is seen to echo Dan Flavin’s colourful fluorescent tubes and their implications of life’s short-lived spark. In reality, Flavin’s pieces tend to infect the area around them, glow and stain surfaces; their finite life span is a secondary thought for the viewer and more likely to be typed up as a bit of supporting dust jacket fluff.

It may be that Flynn’s concern with reducing the physically substantial to codings which transcribe into a dead slickness of surface effect itself flag up a cynicism about the hefty conceit of ‘content’ stapled to Judd and Flavin’s output. The middle brow precis from a coffee table art book may be more than enough explanation for the circulation of art as product.

The three panel series ‘Untitled (Smoke)’ points to this display of smoke and mirrors, of empty misdirection; a wispy chaos of smudged white and grey sitting in front of a left to right graduation of ice cream cheery pink and orange, simulating a localized tangle of smoke. 

The slick vacuity of surface play is further complicated by the recurring theme of truncated communication and mortality - ‘Speaker’ (2015) shows the back of a squared, freestanding speaker shaped box; ‘Mother’ a length of shiny black rubbery flex lying on a marbled reflective step and cut in the middle; ‘Cold Children’ (2012), a simulation of a series of reflective, multipart metallic picture frames. Pictures excluded. Even the frame is a digital parody of a metallic frame. 

The whole thing is topped off by two digital animations - ‘Other Fatherland’ and ‘Half Life Of A Miracle’ - which make resoundingly explicit the penetration of distances between, and within, objects as a metaphor for the joyless circularity of human animal desires invested in the outpourings of the art world. 

Saturday, 19 September 2015


Eliminate them from the equation and people become nostalgic for ‘things’. 

To encounter an isolated object or material effect in the airy vacuum of a contemporary art gallery’s white cube space is generally perceived as a healthy slowing down of the relentless tzunami of visual information. A temporary mental breathing space. 

So ‘things’ seem to occupy two oppositional positions at the same time: a communal anchor against the manipulable fluidity of images and information as well as being a disposable commodification of urges and desires.

Conversely, Bourriaud’s lets-have-a-party ethic of participation - sociability as healthy dialogue - certainly had an underlying progressive point, questioning the future value of things against actual experience. 

Themes in group shows always require an elastic spine, a certain allowance for the show’s remit to get a little loose and baggy and fresh connections and perspectives to reveal themselves.

So ‘ExtraORDINARY: Everyday Objects And Actions In Contemporary Art’ (yes, it really is spelt like that) the new exhibition at Salford (UK) The Lowry’s galleries - a messy compact of themes: art’s use of mass-produced objects, art as instruction and response, the momentary subversion of routine in daily life - had real possibilities. 

Unfortunately it doesn’t work as an efficiently cohesive show and results in an aimless compilation of themes and works, often ones only with a nodding acquaintence. 

The directive managerial banalities of the UK’s obsession with ‘the creative industries’ is often loudly evidenced in toxically joyous exhibition titles. 

The 1990s and 2000s may have lathered such zippy titles in irony but they’ve become so much part of the history of contemporary displays that institutions try to live down to their branding possibilities without an ounce of self awareness.

There is an infantile clarity of intent for many public-funded bodies, that is, fun ( most definitely lowercase). Fun being an idle, distracted engagement, a momentary disruption of the repetitions of the habitual and everyday with an implication that their mission statement has a critical inflection, an aspiration towards a post-art world of social engagement as entertainment.

Within “ExtraORDINARY” there is also the vague presumption of an organic congruence between physical actions and effective agency in the social sphere. The PUREGYM signs on the way to the galleries seem to suggest otherwise.

There is also an echo of the art world’s peculiar delusion that there is a legacy of opposition to consumer culture through the (re)presentation of stuff, things, the crap and leftovers from ‘the quotidian,’ the everyday detritus of our society’s particular items and tokens of exchange.

Whatever ‘art’ actually is, it’s best incarnations counter-act the dumb inertia of things and the corrosive triviality of habit in a multi-layered way.

Some art is good at this combination of immediacy and slow-burn resonance, some less so.

Leo Fitzmaurice’s “Litter (Lowry)” (2015) is three groupings of plastic litter bags filled, presumably, with the titular litter. There’s two placements of two bags, one of three, all seated on the gallery floor and casually leaning against the walls. 

Clearly one casual meeting of litter bags would work better, retain a disruptive and questioning disposability which is spoilt by the tripart cheekiness of the final piece.

Even taking this on board, Fitzmaurice’s “Litter” has a focused elegance when seen in the same exhibition as Gavin Turk’s deflated balloon, signed eggs, cardboard egg tray, and bitten biscuit. All framed and commodified.

Turk’s output has always seemed to be a bit ‘art student’; simplistic rehashes of Duchamp and Klein lifted from a Thames and Hudson primer on proto-conceptual art. His leaden 1990’s twist was always on emphasis on the signature imprint of ‘Gavin Turk’ as a cynical Warholian branding, even that quickly wore thin.
Martin Creed is much more skillful and entertaining at turning nothing into something thoughtfully amusing. His crumpled ball of white A4 paper (‘Work No. 86’) is now twenty years old and an established tabloid-baiting sculpture. It’s presentation on a squared plinth under a clunky, size-able perspex case completely ruins its insouciant simplicity.

Similarly his blue-tack pressed onto a wall (‘Work No. 79’) is stalked by a titling label which is far too close and visually disruptive. Nothing needs a lot of space.

At least his horizontal line of diminishingly substantial nails and their 90 degree shadows (‘Work No. 701’) is given a bit of space to do its work.

Erwin Wurm’s “One Minute Sculptures” series of small photographs of gallery or studio-based single figures doing inappropriate things with functional objects gets a look in. There’s a woman balancing cups on the soles of her shoes, a man in horizontal press-up position balanced on four coffee cups, a portrait format snap of a man with office supplies - pens, pencils, a stapler - gripped in his mouth, tentatively inserted in his ears and nose.  

The other Wurm pieces are less fleet-of-foot or interesting, “Lay Down, Take A Deep breath, Don’t Think And Feel Connected” (2005) is a low boxy white pedestal carrying a small technical drawing style image of a figure following the instructions of the title. A slight variation from this is the earlier “Take Your Most Loved Philosophers” (2002); a taller squared plinth topped with a mini-sprawl of philosophy paperbacks and a small wall drawing of a figure attempting to carry books in their arms and between their legs. 

The whole bumpy, lumpy package of the human form gets a number of showings. Spencer Tunick’s “Salford (The Lowry)” (2010) is a human-scale digital image of several hundred naked people milling around outside The Lowry. Usual Tunick fare.

Aestheticizing the pliability of human flesh into both static and moving images are John Coplan’s late 1990’s photos of interlocking fingers and hairy knuckles looking like a nest of sleeping baby rats and Bruce Nauman’s “Thighing (Blue)” (1967), a 16mm film transferred to video of Nauman prodding, kneading and stroking his hairy leg and thigh. 

Their inclusion in the show is a case of a loss of curatorial clarity, shoe-horning in a couple of art stars. Both are worth seeing, both should be in a different exhibition.

Willi Dorner’s “Bodies In Urban Spaces” (2011) appear to be exactly what the title states, large colour images of figures in baggy sportswear wedged in the top curve of an exterior urban door space, a breeze block doorway and a gap between stone buildings. They use the raw material of the human body to much greater effect than Tunick’s rehash of a bored herd of nudists.

The most visually elaborate digital film is Wood and Harrison’s “Semmi Automatic Painting Machine” (2014) in which a vertical stand clamped with a column of paint spray guns trundles into view to spray primaries and loud greens on to a series of unconnected objects - chairs, plants, ladders, lamps, balloons, flags, etc - all in tightly edited succession. It’s a natural progression from Wood and Harrison’s short comedic studio-bound films of the straight-faced artists suffering the effects of simple physical laws.

Martha Rosler’s “Semiotics Of The Kitchen” (1975) video, however, fits the shows aspiration to force together objects and directive instructions more comfortably. Rosler’s exaggerated instructive gestures on how to use an alphabet of kitchen utensils is topped off with a fuck-you shrug and smirk which it is worth sitting through the whole piece to experience.

Finally, the two physically substantial works which attempt to prompt audience participation and bring together the ragged tangle of exhibition themes are Karina Smigla-Bobinski’s ‘post-digital drawing machine” “ADA” and Roelof Louw’s pyramid of oranges.

“ADA” is given an appropriately large all-white gallery space. A large translucent helium-filled ball speckled with thumb-thick spines of charcoal hovers in the gallery waiting for a visitor to push it glidingly towards a wall, slowly leaving cumulative patches of accidentally drawn lines. It makes literal the idea of art as interactive but, unlike the bucket of visitors handwipes at the rooms entrance, has little to do with the objects of the day-to-day.

Louw’s pyramid of hundreds if not thousands of oranges pushes this interactivity into a tentative sociability allowing the audience to take an orange until the mountain has disappeared.

The small boy who decided to rearrange the oranges was soon stopped, the rules of engagement politely explained to him. 

Interactivity as entertainment clearly has its own rigid rules.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

See Views

The current exhibition in Manchester city centre’s ‘OBJECT / A’s elongated underground space may logistically be a relatively simple affair to mount but Rick Copsey’s ‘See Views’ play with BIG themes, self-consciously filtered through the unfashionable popularity of Gothic forms.

The Gothic novel regularly relied on driving narrative by the device of reproducing descriptive fictive letters, communiques between parties and primary characters in the story.  It subliminally co-opted the necessary fact of the reader holding text on paper into being an additionally seductive drawing-in of the audience, added a peculiar realism to the fantastical, made the book seem more like reportage than storytelling. 

There are obvious parallels here with photographic prints, flat objects masquerading as the truth of a scene; photography as a compressed selective misremembering of the space of experience and places experienced.

Rick Copsey’s works appear to be dynamic and overwrought photographic examples of the historically conservative genre of landscape, or more accurately seascapes; to be a gauzy haze of fixed actualities, insinuations of material substance as muted intimation of space and time.

The images are in reality digital parodies of photographic prints, microscopically small areas of paint on canvas toyed with and enlarged. 

These close-up and amended digital photographs of smears of paint on canvas begin to simulate semi-abstract seascapes - the sublime hidden in the mundane - and, like hallucinogenic CGI ‘stills’, radiate an ambient unnaturalness.

The clever double bluff here is that the viewers initial confused misreadings of the images can’t cancel out the fact that micro-panoramas of the slow-motion liquidity of paint actually fulfill the implications of the initial impression of the images perfectly.

For all their visual dynamism there is a wry knowingness about the whole display.

They are fake seaside snaps of the chaos of a broiling id, buffeting against the purity and constraints of a medium born from chemistry and the reductive aesthetic of the early years of Modernism, with its compartmentalization of human impulses into the administered and manageable. 

Copsey seems to be attacking the clear historical paternal referent of painting as a medium whilst begrudgingly acknowledging a nostalgic love of its aspirations and its failures.

The ‘art’ bit is not in Copsey’s transcriptive technique or compositional selection but in finding a way to anchor the overt assertion that the sublime is hidden in the mundane in a seductive and layered image. 

Sunday, 26 July 2015

" dancing to dogs."

                                                                             Photo: Copyright Simon Pantling 

Maybe it’s something in the air, economic demands, or just a chin-rubbing reappraisal of historically bounded presumptions but Manchester / Salford (UK) is currently filling art type spaces with a long overdue reassessment of where painting has got to in the last twenty years.

On show in Salford is International 3 Gallery’s contribution in the form of Stuart Edmundson’s “ dancing to dogs.” 

The ellipse and lowercase italics of the title already points to the show’s willfully fragmentary construction - paintings, a digital projection, a large freestanding screen, sculptures pieced together from studio detritus and the wall-hugging length of a digital print repeating out-of-focus illuminated icons. 

It’s an ‘installation’ which refuses to be a painting exhibition or a theatre-set but suggests both occupying the space at one and the same time.

The largest component is an eight feet tall, four panel birch wood screen. The surface is peppered with routed gaps to leave the whole thing looking like the wandering curls of a broad regular line framed in a rectangle. Both a functionally unsuccessful vanity screen and an unresolved drawing exercise, along with a two-part, floor seated digital projection, its linear movements are a nod towards the temporal dimension of a drawing and paintings production.

The portrait format halves of the digital projection touch on their vertical side. The left projection shows a static camera playback of a bay in Thailand covering the period of sunset. The horizon line is the point of contact between sky and sea. Little happens but the incremental shift in colours. The right hand panel is initially hard to interpret but formally similar. The top half is a grey blue awning, the bottom the infinite blue of an empty sky.

The bulk of the other component bits of the show are, for want of a better word, paintings which are abstract.

In the largest canvas, covering an area of the previously described digital print, a peculiar dominating shape looks like the slumped and overstuffed calcified innards of an old armchair or equally an anthropomorphic compact of object and human body. Furnishing, body, sculpture, the thing nearly pictured is, however, of no real consequence; the ability of paint to direct the viewers eye around the fictive space is.
The smaller paintings on display are equally unreadable spatial gameplays but blocky forms make the (non) pictures more architectural and solid.
Within the framing boundary of the paintings, Edmundson seems to want to leave the impression that, although in reality mixed, colours which retain the freshness of a primary have been forced into proximity. The synthetic brightness is quietly undercut by considered complementaries which balance the exercise. There may be a lack of modeling graduations but nuanced smears and shadowing hold the picture space together, no matter how intentionally ambiguous that space may be.
Paradoxically it’s the limited ambient colours which insinuate themselves into the air, the ones which punctuate the gallery even by their spatial absence, which are equally important.

It may be most useful to assume that alien washes of muted pinks and blues have invisibly invaded the space and occasionally reveal themselves: in the ambient buzz of a digital projectors images; in the staining of canvas rags crudely sewn together, and as a creeping tonality in almost all the paintings in the show. 

It’s actually this limited palette of colour which acts as the real visual glue to the whole thing; grounds the physical spatial play of punctured screen, wire mesh construction material, the legs and rectangles of a table  shaped plinth sketched in space. 

This brings the mucking about with space back to the fore.

There’s a very limited range of terms habitually used to discuss ‘the visual‘ and therefore a very limited way of thinking about the experience of looking.

For Edmundson the problems of painting aren’t a problem at all just a fact. The fact is that painting is purely and simply coloured stuff in space. Everything else is an unnecessary and noisy embellishment. 

The more thoroughly one considers this suggestion that the noise of discourse really is just noise, the more thoroughly destabilizing Edmundson’s perspective is and the more significant the deadpan humour which underpins the exhibition becomes.

Just because something’s colourful doesn’t mean it isn’t quite dark. 

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Real Painting

Once more it seems that painting is the new currency; the old-new currency indicating the stubborn interchangeable fact of substance as both commodity and a means of questioning the limitations of our apparatus of perception. The twitchy economics of the world always seem to cycle back to this situation. 

In 2015, there is the added complexity that the selective ownership of physically substantial things becomes an announcement of status whilst also being an indefinably appropriate response to the tsunami of information and images which surround and define us. A refined editing on a number of levels.

The overt compulsion to respond immediately, to merely react, to the missives, directives and info piped through the not-so-new ‘new’ media is a primary aspect of those medias operations.The peculiar bastard offshoots of reductive painting and Minimalist sculptural play which sit around, hang around, and perch on the wall of, the Castlefield Gallery (Manchester, UK) retain a sulky slow-burn aspect which the flash, buzz and zip of the technology of the Post-Post-Modern doesn’t.

The ‘Real Painting’ exhibition, co-curated by Deb Covell and Jo McGonigal with supporting text by Craig Staff, seems to both reach back to Merleau-Ponty’s holistic, experiential phenomenological model of perception and attempts to gather examples of contemporary (non)-painters who are firmly corrupted by the conceptual speculations thrown up by ‘Painting’ (with a capital P).

To their credit they proceed with an obvious understanding that ‘painting in the expanded field’ is a tired mantra only ever really expounded on by academics who approach the topic with a joylessly forensic sensibility and a selective memory of paintings produced in the last 100 years. 

Painting may have failed to be the liberating playground for free expression dreamt of by left-wing art critics and jazz fans but it does have a surprising ability to absorb, mutate and become a subtly different beast decade by decade.

So the works here show the relatively flat architectural unit of that thing considered as ‘a painting’ being deformed, damaged, turned into boxy constructions, inflated like overstuffed cushions, hanging as a sheet of pure paint or curled up and attached to lengths of painted wood.  

A typical Alex Harding (‘Hood’, 2012) shows an ice-cream pink skin of paint forever threatening to slide vertically off its wooden support. 

Angela de la Cruz has three very different works on show and, unusually for a group show, her larger pieces are some of the best exhibited - ‘Compressed 1 (White)’ (2010) looks like a partially crushed kitchen wall unit, its white oil paint coating giving it a cartoon smoothness; ‘Battered 4 (Red)’ (2012) shows its painting and sculptural influences, a rich red balloon cushion appearance with intentional flaky patches of paint revealing a shiny silver aluminium support.

A small simple off white encaustic and gesso-on-wood by David Goerk (‘Untitled (12.28.12)’ (2012)) seemed to have 10 small oval holes which turned out to be dabs of paint on its surface. Its bold simplicity made it one of the best works in the show.

Sticking with the shows larger remit of testing for paintings essentials (whatever they may actually be) Deb Covell had a long hanging sheet of white acrylic paint,‘Nowt to Summat’ (2014), reaching from ceiling to floor and interrupting the main rectangle of the larger basement space. 

It worked well as a spatial pivot for the show especially when mapping the larger space with wall pieces of varying scales but it did highlight the fact that there really is twice as much stuff present than there should be.  

Covell’s co-conspirator seemed to take the whole enterprise to the next stage of head scratching. Jo McGonigal’s ‘Yellow Yellow’ (2015) had a cotton t-shirt knotted into a handshake with a silk scarf. Both bits, not surprisingly, being yellow: a paintless painting which demands, because of context, to be interpreted according to older diagnostic models.

‘Real Painting’ works as show not because it repeats older questions about the flexibility of things to qualify as paintings, the ‘expanded’ notions of painting, but because it makes clear the undefinable nature of the physically substantial without some baggy, mutually agreed rules.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Whitworth Galleries Relaunch

When it comes to the newly revamped, extended and rebranded Whitworth (Manchester, UK) Gallery, timings the thing. 

Or rather, a misstep and a series of unsynchronized stumbles. 

The truth is that the relaunch has been, well, a bit creaky.

On the up side, the new spaces are pretty impressive. The visitors can flow around the building taking in the shiny glass and light of the very large, over-priced cafe, bob into the sizeable side galleries, slide through the shifting ambience of the cluster of spaces. It has turned the act of visiting the Whitworth into something of an event. A job well done. 

Then the dysfunctional aspects of the rebuild start to show - toilets are a bit thin on the ground, the intentionally photogenic cafe is basically an uncomfortable glass corridor on stilts serving poor coffee.

Obviously the ‘creative industries’ shop model raises its cynical and oxymoronic head in every institution paying back its government funding. 

So there’s twee papery ‘objets’ that pepper the gift / bookshop; wooden things, tasteful notebooks, expensive faux-artisanal trinkets allowing the middle-brow ex-graduates to feel distanced from base consumerism whilst feeding their inclusion.

War references pepper the displays. Presumably because the relaunch was originally to be last November and synchronized with the commemorative 11th of November’s Red Poppy day.

Cai Guo-Qiang’s huge 45 metre long, 4 metre high gunpowder drawing “Unmanned Nature” does look vaguely like a landscape drawing minus any delicacy of line. The DVD playbacks of his vast firework and gunpowder displays seemed to enjoy blowing things up far to much considering the dour thematics.

Cornelia Parker’s a decent artist with a backlog of irritatingly efficient and occasionally playful works. The apparent simplicity of her smaller object-based neo-conceptual work: silver dollars reconfigured as threads as long as Niagara Falls and The Statue of Liberty are high, a glass drum, orangey-beige rectangles of canvas linings from Turner paintings, and so on, are her real strength.

She also has a tendency to produce larger gallery-filling installations; casts of pavement cracks lying horizontally but raised from the floor; crushed tubas and trumpets, flattened silver service utensils, all hovering off the ground on fishing line strong wires. I suspect that the local art schools will soon be filled with the suspended flotsam and jetsam of students bedrooms.

Reconstructed here, her most successful example is probably the early ‘signature’ work ‘Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View’: the component bobs and bits of a garden shed literally suspended mid-explosion. A centred light bulb throws large elongated shadows on the gallery walls giving the work a scale way beyond its physical heft, It’s still a visually effective construct.

Less successful is Parker’s new ‘War Room’ installation, a high-ceilinged oblong room with its walls and ceiling covered by large perforated sheets, left-over paper negatives resulting from factory production of commemorative red paper and plastic poppies. It feels like a large porous tent but lacks any atmosphere.  

Off on a tangent is the Karpadis Foundation’s dumping (or donation depending on how you want to look at it) of a 90 piece collection of American and British art - paintings, prints, photograph and photo-process based pieces. The Lisa Oppenheim 2011 reprint of 1876 heliograms look like grey circles stamped onto burnt baking trays. Almost reflective, almost an image they work remarkably well.

Speaking of all things Karpadis, Johnnie Shand Kydd’s “Hydra” is a length of corridor wall covered by 3 panels of black and white photographs from Shand’s ‘extensive and varied portfolio focus on his yearly trips to the Geek island of Hydra at the invitation of the art collector and Whitworth patron Pauline Karpadis.’  (as present in wall C’s photograph number 2 and number 16)

Shand Kydd’s (see wall C’s photograph number 35) holiday snaps aspire to being a historical record of the group of artists cursed with the title ‘Young British Artists’ as they rose to playful moneyed success. They succeed very well in these terms but the rather cheaply done book of these images piled in the Whitworth Gallery bookshop suggest a cultural value that they can’t really justify. 

The self-regarding, look-at-me-mummy dimension of Shand Kydd’s work could be compared to Warhol’s homegrown stable of wannabe superstars; louche urban-types just hanging about. 

Warhol got away with it because his scattershot reportage jigsawed into an overview of a social system which had critical bite, both of Capitalism’s playground indulgence of the narcissist and the seductive banality of accumulated images. 

Shand Kydd’s pictures may, however, be entirely appropriate to the tone of the YBA - a recycling of historical models and a case of diminishing returns - but there’s a further problem. It seems tonally incorrect for the revamped 2015 incarnation of the Whitworth to restage a point in history when art as commerce openly ruled the roost, a celebration of socio-economic conservatism and critical surface skating, which is both decades old and, even first time round, a little lacking in substance.

And speaking of Young British Artists, Sarah Lucas (see Johnnie Shand Kydd’s wall A photograph number 6 and wall C’s photograph number 10) has a mini-retrospective upstairs. There’s three walls of wallpaper showing a regular pattern of domed breasts made from cigarettes or as tabloid-loving Lucas prefers “Tits In Space”, seedy stuffed stocking sculptures, large photos of Lucas scowling in a fuck-you kind of way - the usual Lucas alphabet of things. It’s all fine but really just another outing for things which have been seen time and time again.

By the time one leaves the building this tangle of implied nepotism and retro-staging of New Labour style grinning optimism leaves an uncomfortable niggling in the stomach.

Parker’s side room projection of a Noam Chomsky interview, one in which he does his usual informed unpicking of global feudal power structures in the tone of a tired and disappointed headmaster, suddenly seems depressingly appropriate.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Day My Mother Touched Robert Ryman

Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery (UK) has been extended, buffed and recently reopened to a fanfare of audience-attracting publicity. And, to be fair, prior to its temporary closure for redevelopment, it’s had a decent run of shows.

The history of a city’s moments of significant application to this thing called ‘art’ is not however built on firework displays at the launch of gallery extensions but on an investment in an art practice which needles, resonates or questions its own function.

The splendidly hermetic exercise that is the gallery / project space / event ‘facilitator’ (delete as appropriate) ‘titledateduration’ continues its determination to head in the opposite direction of government funded institutions and promote work which refuses to be easily comprehensible. 

Currently on display at ‘titledateduration’ is Stefan Sulzer‘s film and book combination ‘The Day My Mother Touched Robert Ryman’. The touching in question being fingertips on a white canvas rather than Mr Ryman himself.

Sulzer recounts the possibly fictional story of a woman’s encounter with Robert Ryman’s work followed by the woman’s homeward bound reflection on the encounter, intercut with a secondary author-narrators speculations about Ryman’s work. Narrated through the text in a book and as a voiceover on a short film it builds its own complicated layering of surfaces remembered, surfaces implied and the digital ghosts of surfaces experienced.

In the digital projection a static camera has recorded the landscape moving past a train’s rain blotched window, twitchy sliding layers of visual information. The camera’s lens doesn’t appear too clean. There are gaps in the houses, cars and trees of the world passing by outside exposing a misty haze blurred horizon line of mountains. 

Impressively vast expanses of water suggest a wavering coastline but are probably the muted grey-green mass of the Hudson River, as referenced in the accompanying book and DVD’s documentary-style voice over.

The suspicion remains that the text has been edited from the film’s accompanying monologue. Alternatively the soundtrack could be an expanded version of the written piece. Or possibly neither. The voice transcribing writing into speech may be doing just that. 

What is certain is the eccentric spacing in the layout of the printed sentences: blank pages alternating with isolated sentences sandwiched between short paragraphs - basically a lot of white paper infected with language.

Ryman is understood to be an artist who operates a balancing act between the idea-based blankness of Conceptual Art and old school abstract monochrome painting by the simple act of painting white paintings; paintings with no reference point outside the fact of paint on a flat surface.  

In actual fact, Ryman plays with scale, the different material supports of the paintings and the variety of ways that a square can be attached to a wall. The seductive material complexity of Ryman’s practice is usually overlooked.

Central to the practice is an emphasis on the fact that displaying blankness isn’t a simple reductive repetition of sameness, it’s a battle with the impossibility of a blankness which can only be represented or re-presented by difference.

In Sulzer's work the various material supports of white paper, filmed glass, ill-defined horizon lines and the mental interiors of fictive narrations seem to suggest the impossibility of a pure visual experience of staged near blankness. 

The one thing required is the experience-event of a Ryman painting to wipe the slate clean and silence all this muttering. Which may be Sulzer’s point. Or maybe not. 

It really doesn’t matter. 

Any exhibition / show / presentation which leaves a visitor wrong-footed in such an insidious and polite way is an automatic success.