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. 

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Here and Now

Recently, speculative boffins have developed a substance regarded as the blackest ever seen (or not seen); a light absorbent tangle of nano-tubes and balls which, when coating an object, allows the physically substantial to appear as an area void of physical substance. It’s hard to conceive of a more extreme disciplining of messy reality than to produce that which appears as a hole punched in space. 

2001‘s alien monolith is this made cinematic flesh but also, inevitably, another kind of hole, one punched in the celluloid strip to reconfigure notions of space and time, restructure chronologies of evolution and futurity. 

In Manchester’s ‘OBJECT / A’, Deb Covell’s installation / painting / sculpture ‘Here And Now’ is a wire hung, almost square rectangle of black paint - itself titled ‘Present’ - brightly lit from behind.

Hovering about two thirds along the narrow, corridor long space, the synthetic marzipan textured nullity implies an impossible act of gravitational denial, a temporary gnomic deficiency of anchoring solidity and the iteration of an invisible scaffolding; all in one slice of paint.

As we are unavoidably tied to the three-dimensional world, a black square tends to insinuate its extension into a black cube, recolonizing chaos with an even more rigid structure.

Like Kubrick’s monolith, monochromatic painting is a congealing of temporal shifts, it seems to excise difference. The most successful monochromes momentarily succeed in appearing to have the purity of an unmixed primary; the solidity of unmoving fact, unchanging and unchangeable.

So let’s get rid of the obvious precedent and note the most famous arty black square: Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ of 1915, or, rather, all four of them. 

Replacing the ubiquitous Russian icon of his youth with this graphic rectangle may, in place of the censorious gaze of an ill-tempered creator,  have left Malevich with an existential void but it leaves the (un)-believer with a renewed responsibility for populating this clearing space, a responsibility both creative and moral.

And this perplexing ground zero inevitably undermines the immateriality and spiritual aspirations of Malevich’s gesture; sensory deprivation leaves us readdressing real space and its ill-tempered twin time. Even in the case of Malevich’s original “Black Square’ rhino-hide cracks now infect the painting dragging the apparent blank back into crappy reality.

Keeping this interweaving mess of observations going, it seems most useful to consider Covell’s piece as a contemporary extension of the kind of visual spatial editing and narrative play flirted with in literature: the blacked out pages of Sterne’s ‘Tristram Shandy’ or the rectangular holes in the pages of B.S. Johnson’s ‘Albert Angelo’.

The spatial and temporal realities of ‘Here And Now’ escape the dreamy purities of High Modernism, and wilfully so; a secondary viewer’s body circling the slice of paint automatically soils proceedings with its disruptive presence or presentness.

None of these structuring narratives - historical and cultural reference points, the literary or the cinematic - are prioritized but are left themselves to circle the piece. It’s really then the responsibility of the viewer’s imagination to expand on the implications of this.

If anything ‘Here And Now’ becomes a bald statement about the impossibility of nothingness.