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.