Thursday, 18 August 2022

Rebecca Sitar: The Obstinate Muteness Of Things

                                                                   'Casket' (2021)

Manchester-based artist Rebecca Sitar’s recent joint exhibition with Dan Roach, ‘Mudlarks’, was a pleasant reminder that, in a zeitgeist still rather taken by formal hybridity in contemporary art, an unshowy refinement of a practice has its own benefits.

‘Mudlarks’ was the name applied to nineteenth century riverbank scavengers patrolling the intertidal flats of the Thames to unearth objects still carrying a use value. It is also suggestive of the magpie lark of Australian descent which builds nests from mud and twigs, a kind of constructive and functional alchemy not unlike the building site of a painting, itself constructed from stubbornly solid surfaces and painterly muck.


The vague, almost recognisable, single objects that dominate Sitar’s paintings either hover in front of surface washes of milky and muted colour or emerge x-ray-like from the quiet ground of the pictures. So, in ‘Under the Skin’, a horizontal twig shape is sharply foregrounded on a background of cool blue-white; whereas ‘Red Velvet In Thin Air’ seems to gather a cloudy orange-pink block of haze from the warm but pale ground of the painting.


Enigmatic but intimate, keening towards the mimetic and an elevation of the fragmentary, it is impossible to gauge the scale of the suggested objects; they could be delicately microscopic or as substantial as handleable human artefacts and everyday objects. Rarely do they radiate the aggression of the monumental or the sizeable clutter of a natural landscape.


A mnemonic woolliness hovers around them; they feel like the restatement of objects previously forgotten or abandoned, but, as Richard Davey observes in the exhibition catalogue, ones fleetingly sighted in the blurred boundary of peripheral vision.


Davey notes that ‘we exist in the ‘here’ – bounded bodies interlocked with time and place, unable to escape the ever-unfolding present of ‘now’’ whilst simultaneously acknowledging that ‘Our memory is a palimpsest, where fragments from times past and the dreams of our unformed future collide with the present moment…. Into a familiar picture of reality in the mind’.1


Observations which emphasise a paradoxical truth: although we can never ‘escape the ever-unfolding present of ‘now’’, we never really live, fully, in the ‘now’; our minds being formed from fragmentary snippets of past experiences and dreams interlocking with new sensations to allow us to construct our picture of reality.


This introduces significant elements often foregrounded within contemporary painterly practice, Sitar’s included. The thematics of duration and flow.

Duration and flow have been resurrected time and again within critical discourse; the fertile lineage of Bergson via Deleuze and a detour through the photographic and its digital offspring.


Organically, paintings carry the potential of being an ontological flattening into a single object-space of the spatial gameplay evidenced in previous historical precedents. This may suggest a mere expansion of the possibilities inherent in an investigation of ‘the painterly’.


But it is important to remember the degree to which painting as a technology, as much as painting as a conceptualising discipline, has always simultaneously absorbed and colonised parallel media.


If duration and flow are the DNA of twitchy digital pixels and contemporary moving images, they are also, in parallel, discretely hidden and quietly resonate within contemporary painterly practice.


That is why it is impossible to extricate a single temporal pace from this admixture of maternal referents within many contemporary paintings. Sitar’s paintings graphically state this sense of layered, contrary fluid perceptual shifts, discretely acknowledging the impurity of painting as a comfortably static and definable practice.

Further, in abstraction the interest moves from the mechanism of perception to the work of paint beginning to think at the level of expressive matter. Sitar plays with this, suggestively concerned both with the mechanisms of perception and with painting as a 'memorial' to painting as a practice.

This is very different than the tired constraining stricture of perpetually restaging 'the death of painting' as the paintings here act as a network of becomings and stagnations. Stray matter congealing into the visually apprehendable overlayed with its obverse, a flow of creeping entropy and deterioration.

This balance of contradictions make 'Casket' and its bleached out sugary tones efficiently seductive and needlingly off-putting at one and the same time. Like an overexposed printed photo of a Wayne Thiebaud cake painting.


As spectres of material presence, the almost-images pictured in Sitar’s works maintain a subtle discordancy between solidity and visual slippage. The minds’ eye sweeps around them in a predatory circling of the isolated object-events which act as enigmatic and unstable visual bait. The implied objects are haunted by alternative objects; other material possibilities occupying the same space at the same time.


Importantly, here images are not just traps for the eye but suggestive pivots towards other possible images.


The liminal imaginal spaces of these paintings are often almost interchangeable and, experiencing a grouping of this work, it is interesting to consider the possibility that they actually function as an ongoing serial production of a single work. One in which absence acts as a binding factor.


Afterall, on constructing a resemblance, the thing referred to is generally removed. The operations of this work may usefully be viewed as cojoined absences revelling in the obstinate muteness of things.



1. From ‘Kaleidoscopes of Atomic Shards’ by Richard Davey, an introductory essay to the catalogue ‘Mudlarks: Rebecca Sitar and Dan Roach’, published by University of Worcester, School of Art, 2021

(ISBN:10:9780903607360 and 13:978-0-903607-36-0)




Saturday, 23 April 2022

Archives At Play - Castlefield Gallery, Manchester, UK


The impulse to collect, connect and structure things and information, to build an archive, is one which has been tapped by the gallery system for a very long time.

More recently, exhibitions built and staged in galleries have referenced the act and importance of their own archives as material snapshots of the tone of times past; as records of cultural production and the shifting social and ethical prioritising of themes and focus.

It’s both a positive and negative game-plan. An easy and affordable way to regurgitate past presentations and satisfy funding bodies which regard broad, usually politically neutered, gripes about social and economic inequalities, rejigged as entertainment with a moral edge, as presumably wholesome and satisfactory entertainment for the various sub-groups assumed to accurately constitute the viewing public.

Alternatively, it can be a barbed critique of simplistic thematisation as enforced from the political centre, as a complicating and enriching self-flagellation by a representative of that cynical oxymoron the culture industry.

Confusingly, the ‘Archives at Play’ exhibition, about to finish its run at Manchester UK Castlefield Gallery, seems to be both and neither as it takes considerable mental contortions to cello-tape the concept of ‘the archive’ and that of ‘play’ together to satisfy the suggestion of the exhibition title.

The term ‘archive’ is the misdirective mcguffin in the mix.

The exhibition seems more concerned with the possibilities of a productive friction between the playfully subjective arena of the imaginal, with its own opaque structuring systems, and the ideologically grounded structure of gallery display and archival recordings.

Curator Thomas Dukes starts the ball rolling with a display shelf and alcove littered with a range of material reproduced from the gallery’s archive boxes. Records of exhibitions from the gallery’s history, supporting promotional hand-outs, contact sheets of instal images, hand-written and therefore less formal correspondence between artists and Castlefield staff, etc all co-exist on a display shelf and invite visitors to dive into the information as they wish.

It is unclear if the information displayed has been carefully or randomly selected so a binding logic is there to be constructed by the reader / viewer. Which presumably is the point. Alternative perspectives and histories mingling like unstructured fragments of memory: the personal and the institutional fighting and co-mingling.

Most conceptually close to this display, Chester Tenneson's small, squared text paintings address the ‘archive’ aspect of the exhibition title, alternatively, Tenneson's toy-like sculptural collisions of mass-produced objects wrestle with the ‘play’ bit.

The plastic falseness of a bright yellow construction hat topped with a blue propellor (‘Bright Lights from a Giant Wheel’) or a surprisingly large model railway’s terraced house mounted on a bike’s stabilising side wheels (‘That River’s Flowing’) are enjoyably playful re-stagings of an old Surrealist trick. But Tenneson’s strongest works are the familiar text paintings which, over the years, have often been a witty highlight of group and joint exhibitions.

Previously acting as efficient standalone pieces (even when huddled in groups with an overarching title) they work best here as cross reference-able units as the text used has been lifted from the gallery’s archive literature. Tenneson’s signature tone of sarcasm (think Mel Bochner rather than Jenny Holzer) threads through the selection of phrases: ‘The Persistent Theme Of The Transformation Of The Mundane To The Extraordinary’, ‘A Location Which Is Ideally Situated’, ‘A Dance Which Leads To Friends And Potential Lovers’, as well as very Tenneson-esque pronouncements ‘A List Of Contents Which May Vary’ or ‘Parapsychologists, Mediums, Magicians, Sociologists & Ken Russell’. 

Dr Yan Wang Preston’s ‘English Gardens’ growing collection of photographic prints use the elegant, spartan aesthetic of Chinese flower paintings and Victorian pressed flowers. The relative newness to UK soil of the now common selected plants, and their natural thriving, makes obvious metaphorical points about migration and renewal with aesthetically engaging artworks.

The use of actual plant-life and additional chunky curves of shop-new plastic plumbing make up Gregory Herbert’s ‘Entanglement Ways of Being’. Transparent areas and missing piping allow the eye to burrow into the buildings (redirected) circulatory system.

It appears that the relentless push of organic growth is also acting as a physical incarnation of an alternative structuring principle to the ideological underpinnings of the gallery system. In reality, the thing displayed shows the superimposition of a conceptually ‘perceived’ circulatory system onto a necessarily practical system whilst acknowledging that nothing here is actually necessary. The ‘user value’ of art may be the final sideswipe of the work.

Half of the main downstairs Castlefield space is filled with a sizeable installation by Kelly Jayne Jones which continues the knotting together of organising belief systems (inevitably both ideological and social).

The low lighting intimates the muffled greys of twilight. There’s a theatrical mixture of materials; organic rocky lumps and chalk scrawled rectangles of slate, sharp punctuations of spermy white motifs extending into unreadable technical drawing type patterns; a freestanding frame of cheap timber, and both cheaply reflective tin-foil bright moon crescents and projected silvery circular moons.

The overall effect is something between a site of techno-pagan moon worship and a build for a school play. Either about to begin or having just finished.

Accidentally, this seems to loop back to the archive shelf in suggesting that communal mis-readings and mis-rememberings may be as productively constructive as exhuming hidden histories and perspectives from the archives.

Saturday, 26 June 2021

Venturi's Confusion


Bruno Zeti 'Towards An Organic Architecture' (1950) was, according to Vincent Scully in the intro of the 1977 reprint of Venturi's book 'Complexity And Contradiction In Architecture', a conscious reply to the austerity of Le Corbusier. 

Venturi sits somewhere between Zeti’s acceptance of the sexy organic and chaotic and the simplified but useful functionality of Modernist dreamers.

‘Venturi is more fragmentary,..his proposals, in their recognition of complexity and their respect for what exists, create the most necessary antidote to the cataclysmic purism of contemporary urban renewal which has presently brought so many cities to the brink of catastrophe, and in which Le Corbusier’s ideas have now found terrifying vulgarization.’ (Scully)

According to Scully the argument goes that if Le Corbusier learnt from the luminous austerity of the Greek temple then Venturi took influence from the ornate facades of Italian buildings - their decorative exterior designs curious flow forming a visual analogy to the parallel inside-outside, outside-inside flow of Italian residents physical movements. 

The self-conscious 'liminality' of the facades functions as a moment of transgressive passage between the communal and the intimate as a psychological / intellectual event congealed in ornate material stuff.

Within a couple pages of his Italian-façade-as-porous-threshold observation Scully confidently states that Venturi is one of the ‘very few architects whose thought parallels that of the Pop painters – and probably the first architect to perceive the usefulness and meaning of their forms’.

So, for Scully, Venturi saw a substantial part of architectures job was to act as a waystation, a valve allowing the action of movement between the outside (of the signage and prompts of popular and Pop Art culture) and the space and structure of an interior space (boiled down to essentials in Modernist architectural dreams).

Hmmm, it seems to be half-sensible, a Pop Art frivolity slathered all over Venturi’s twatting with Modernist tropes but isn’t that, ironically, only true on a lazy surface level? Venturi’s complacency is at a conceptual level rather than a formal or visual one.

It is interesting that within Venturi’s actual text as a model of critical application he indicates the literary criticism of Eliot. In some ways this is very revealing of the internal bifurcation within Venturi's critique of modernist constructions. Venturi is attempting to simultaneously react positively to the ‘natural’ everyday decorative demands of the human animal - bolstering his common-sensical polemic about these needs with an overarching and directive theory - whilst simultaneously locating an essentialist core to human requirements.

Venturi’s text is almost a protracted mission statement for seductively decorative yet functional buildings; that is functional as an ambient salve for the troubled psyche of contemporary urban folk (‘I am for messy vitality over obvious unity.’)

As an arch-ironist, certainly within his practice, it is interesting that Venturi has a swing at ‘… the popularisers who paint ‘fairy stories over our chaotic reality’ and suppress most complexities and contradictions inherent in art and experience.’ And yet his love of ‘messy vitality over obvious unity’ rests on a belief that architecture ‘has a special obligation toward the whole: its truth must be in its totality or its implications of totality.’ 

However, what happens when the totalising principle of Popular culture is already ‘fairy stories over our chaotic reality’?

Whilst criticising the debasement of Mie van der Rohe’s expression ‘less is more’ by inferior architects (where less is just less, so a fair point) he opines: ‘An architecture of complexity and contradiction, however, does not mean picturesqueness or subjective expressionism.’

However, Venturi has a tendency to overlook the fact that when dealing with a surplus of the insubstantial more less is just more less automatically leading to ‘picturesqueness or subjective expressionism.’ 

By suggestively paralleling op art and pop art he shows the hidden confusion in his hand. 

Pop art is primarily a conceptual art, a questioning critical deep dive into the engines which drive our cultural concerns; alternatively, op art is pop art with the difficult bits removed.   

Returning to Vincent Scully’s assessment of Venturi in the intro to the reprint of 'Complexity And Contradiction In Architecture' Venturi ‘…Like all original architects, makes us see the past anew.’ 

This is what Venturi signally fails to do. If anything through Venturi we see the now as a perpetual past.

A studied repetition of familiar populist décor and forms colonizing surfaces and invading interiors may add a temporary nipple of pacification to proceedings but it doesn’t have the weird gravitas of Pop Art’s ironic acceptance and sarcastic undermining of cultural norms and taste. Venturi’s art is basically one of resignation and repetition.

It’s not all bad though, he did have an awareness of the contingent nature of his own argument and, I believe, a real thirst for movement and progression within popular architectural builds.

He does register that ‘though we no longer argue over the primacy of form or function… we cannot ignore their interdependence’ and ‘… the variety inherent in the ambiguity of visual perception must once more be acknowledged and exploited.’

The fact of surface is of primary concern, and indeed the perceptual apprehension of an objective solidity of surface and forms is as important as the objective fact of the solidity of surface and forms.

That’s why I think that, in reality, he would like the possibility of relegating his own Las Vegas / Blackpool populism to a new status as another component option within an architecture of ambient mutating textures, really old school formal solidity and complex shadowplay, all interweaving and interleaving with the emblems and icons of transient popular culture if desired.

A new position for architecture of both playground engagement and analytical distancing which the new interiors/ archi-builds should allow - for practical, economic and moral reasons.

Saturday, 5 June 2021

Noel Clueit : Various Artists

Following a twelve month plus Covid-related hiatus, Todmorden’s Studio 2 is showing ‘Various Artists’ by Noel Clueit. Actual stuff. Hanging on walls. In real space. 

The works on display largely the product of the lockdown period, Clueit has sliced-up record sleeves, often ones purchased with a certain indifference to the music sleeved inside, to re-position the resulting areas into new compositions or arrangements. Imagery is ignored. The factory-crisp coloured lines, synthetically pure washes of colour, the decorative embellishments of the covers; in short the playfully abstract design elements, become building blocks for new abstract configurations. 

The Utopian idealism(s) behind early models of international abstraction often had a metaphysical bent but always depended on an effort to bullet-point criteria for formal value judgments. 

And, in reality, there’s an accidental cultural immobility that sticks to the products of this kind of game plan; high art as ultra-tasteful balancing acts of shape and colour which can only really breathe successfully in a controlled and antiseptic environment. Elite, if perfectly enjoyable, décor being the real result. 

To a point this is both inevitable and not necessarily a completely bad thing. Isolating this type of aesthetic experimentation in galleries may be a safer bet than using them as a literal blueprint for social structures. 

And yet, simple molecular fragments of popular taste are equally serviceable for reconstructing effective non-representational compositions. Diagonals, circles, parallel skinny border lines and decorative repetitions, all carefully scalpel cut from 1970s and 80s record sleeves, allow small ‘abstract’ compositions to retain an echo of the material and visual ambience of the printed imagery of the period in which the records were produced. 

So Clueit’s domestic scale parodies of historical models of reductive ‘abstraction’ have no interest in the angsty splashings of Pollock, a form of painterly method acting like Brando stomping around a tasteful set; nor in the cool zen of a Newman stripe, a decorative equivalent to Olivier’s aristocratic aloofness. They are tonally closer to Roger Moore’s sarcastically arched eyebrow, an acknowledgement that artist-producer and viewer-consumer are both inside the game. But enjoying it none-the-less. 

Here, the endpoint of abstractions formal reduction transfers to popular decorative arrangements on the packaging and promotion of everyday products; the covers of records being a perfect playground for this transcriptive urge. The immediately familiar square motif of a vinyl record, thing as a form, area as bounded and bordered, becomes important. 

It is why lines are such an active physical component in Clueit’s works, they echo the boundary line of the rectangle but also control both the pictorial space, dissect it, contradict solidity, but also slow and accelerate the viewer’s pace of address. They take the eye on a looping wander or emphasis the porous, unstable nature of a bounding frame of nothingness. 

When playing a vinyl record the affectionately clumsy, slow spiral of the record players needle sweeps towards an empty centre; the tight spiral of the playback groove, duration and movement, repetitions and echoes are all factors in play. Clueit’s works cumulatively operate in a similar way. 

Significantly, on knowing the compositions source material it is hard not to begin imaginatively dismantling the matt and shiny areas of supporting printed cardboard and to fit them into an imaginary original image or record sleeve. To reconstitute an originating structure. 

The darkness behind the light and bright likeability of these works is the fact that a successful reimagining will not result in a metaphysical blueprint for a better society, it may just congeal into a back-cover from an 80s pop record.

Saturday, 5 September 2020

Brian Mountford : Recent Paintings

    'Everlasting Gobstopper' - Brian Mountford

Mountford's paintings appear to be the nightmare imaginings of Philip Gustons crude and bloated paranoid figures.


Perplexing tapestries and tumbles of gizzards and body parts caricaturing the ponderous heft of real meaty innards. Or crudely and painfully dismantled living portraiture trapped in a hamster wheel of perpetual disassembly.


There's a hastily assembled pile of splayed hands and crinkled chunks of flesh peppered with eyeballs, their synchronised mechanical stares keening towards a point outside the framing rectangle of the canvas. Sausages of intestines are about to transmutate into turgid larva or insectoid pastiches of optic nerves. A blindly mechanistic tangle of tubes acts as a lumpen concretion of cartoon matter.


All cling to the wall like idiot hierarchies of dead materials straining towards agency and autonomy. Occasionally they are infected by decorative patterns which seem to creep like predatory abstractions dismantling the saccharine optimism of the colourful and synthetic palette.


Tethered to the picture surface by coloured muck, these psychedelic cousins of

Arcimboldo's proto-Surrealist vegetable heads suffer from a vague awareness of their own impermanence as whimsical fictions, contingent on external forces always beyond their comprehension.


It is not just a case of a staging of the typography of flesh as a psychological model of the human psyche or, indeed, a fixing of any concept within this cryptozoology of peculiar hybrids.


For Mountford the act of picturing an image is itself the essential core of the fact of painting. That's why the creatures of Mountford's dreamscapes radiate ennui and angst, like sullen hormonal teenagers they resent the processes building them whilst being begrudgingly aware that they are products of these processes.


The ineffable slipperiness of material objects as embodied meaning is being repeatedly restaged as potential narrative jumbles of a distantly remembered, antique plasticity.


But these cartoon distortions cannot indulge themselves by lounging in the way-station of the liminal, this will never be a comforting option, they remain perpetually impressed in the crust of surface paint that birthed them.


Without the possibility of recourse to material volume, they fall back on optical

volume to demand attention; strident and giddy bastard children of headshop posters.


Neon pseudocoma victims dreaming of the slop and sweat of imperfect flesh, they perform their poses whilst pleading for release from the eternal circus of art as a painterly self-flagellation and performance for the viewers entertainment.



Friday, 4 September 2020

Digi-Snaps: Let's Keep The Crap Ones.


 It seems to go like this:


The fading of printed photographs, those temporary slowing downs of the material  decay of things pictured, is an inevitable process. But, when considering the digitally reproducible, now incapable of attaching itself to a printed object this process of decay has become internalised by viewers and attached itself to the fungoid puffballs of our brains.


Like a William Burroughs mutating virus it has sneakily morphed into an unavoidable neurological condition. That of an atrophying physiological capacity to retain and store information, begrudgingly accepted by greedily addicted consumers of tsunamis of semi-random visual stuff.


And it is true that, rather than a parade of revealed truths, the profound and profane shallowness of vast quantities of moments and events pictured leaves the brains memory muscles weaker and less efficiently pliable.


Additionally, the whole procedure leaves an uncomfortable residue, the feeling that some unknowable external force has wiped its arse on the eyeballs.


Although it may leave a hazy cataract of stupidity clouding any selective filtration between hungry eye and passive brain this ocular coprophilia is infuriatingly addictive. Largely because the warm porridge of digi-snaps we mutually bathe in also acts as a sustaining social glue, a binding of bewildered status monkeys into something like a community.


However, if the unexamined life is not really worth living we all have a suspicion that the purely self-examined life is one never lived.


The reality is that most people toss their pennyworth of pictorial fun into a sea of images then register its efficiency by the ripples it makes. Is it reposted, rejigged, bastardised, recontextualised, generally pissed about with? And, more significantly, how often?


This could be claimed to be the case with any analog anchoring of forms in an old photograph. As an idea and as an object photographs have always spoken to, abutted and overlaid all other things which qualify as a photograph.


But now the process of production has accelerated to the point that their ghostly contemporary equivalents no longer stay still long enough to actually be looked at. The juddering informational flow of could-be photographs then bobs around in fat billowy invisible clouds waiting to be mined by aesthetes and commerce.


Intriguingly it may be that the human brain operates in a similarly arbitrary way, collecting a chain of momentary snapshots of the environments its associated body traipses through, then editing the compiled photo album later on. The concept of flow is one thing, our sensory capacity to experience it seamlessly may be something we delude ourselves into believing.


Now that various apps will edit down any backlog of randomly triggered and unseen images, then upload the ‘best quality’ ones for you the next logical development is to step away from any hands-on engagement with the process entirely.


Make a collage instead. After all there’s plenty of free material available through the internet. But let’s make sure the crap pictures have a secure future.

It may take a few hundred years to get around to looking at them. By then, they’ll look a lot more interesting than the buffed, polished and sharpened ones. And, hopefully, appear as gloriously heavy and untranslatable static snagging up the cogs of whatever mechanism tries to mangle them into passive inconsequentiality.