Category: frieze

Large Issues from Small: Meditations on Still Life

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Claire-Louise Bennett on still lifes, ‘the essence of simple things’, and the poetics of space for frieze:

When I was very young, I made drifting lists that were triggered by the things on my bedroom floor, migrated outside to name those things that I imagined inhabited the dark – wolves, moths, fireflies, greying tennis balls tucked beneath black conifers – before turning inwards to tentatively alight upon that strange menagerie of internal phantoms that has been skimming across my marrow since day one. Writing was – and is still, to some degree – a way of linking the inner, the outer and the beyond along the same imaginative continuum. As Bachelard put it: ‘Large issues from small.’ Yet, despite the vibrant poetics that his meditation upon familiar space brings forth, the home and its accoutrements are still routinely thought of in predominantly domestic terms, amounting to nothing more than an environment characterized by habit, drudgery, tameness and unvarying outcomes. Seen from that dour angle, it’s hardly a strata of life that seems worth reporting on. In recent years, visual and performance-art practices have done a great deal to foreground the aesthetic value of the events, tasks and items that constitute daily life. Challenging the hegemony of fine art and its emphasis on beauty, religion and greatness, everyday aesthetics alert us to those myriad responses, from disgust to consummation, that calibrate our day-to-day environments and the activities they are host to. While this is a crucial and exciting turn, I feel that some of the artworks that have emerged from this discourse often present an estranged pastiche of ‘everyday life’, and reinforce generic ideas of the domestic. Too much of the human role is apparent in them, perhaps. I’ve sometimes wondered if it’s people who subdue things, rather than the other way around. Liberated from their customary function, objects regain a marvellous ambivalence which hints at their belonging to a limitless system far more generative than the one they are assigned to through their routine encounters with individuals. An unoccupied stage set has often seemed to me to transmit a greater dramatic charge than the play that comes to pass upon it. Perhaps it is for similar reasons that some of the artworks I like best are still-lifes from the Renaissance period.

The absence of human subject matter in still life meant that, as a genre, it wasn’t held in as high regard as portraiture, landscape or history painting; in my view, it is the very eschewing of a blatantly anthropocentric theme that makes these canvases so singular. And the more stripped down the compositions the better. Among my favourites is a still life, or bodegón, by the Spanish painter Juan Sánchez Cotán. He completed Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber around 1602, at a time when most artists were exclusively occupied with depicting religious tableaux, battle scenes, royal figures and so on. Here, in this arrestingly austere arrangement, a quince hangs from a thin string at the top-left corner of an apparently paneless window; its outstretched leaves make it look winged and restless, as if at any moment it might take flight and disappear upwards out of the frame. Suspended beneath it is a cabbage, whose downcast aspect brings to mind Cyrano de Bergerac’s defence of vegetable life in his novel A Voyage to the Moon (1657): ‘To massacre a man is not so great a sin as to cut and kill a cabbage, because one day the man will rise again, but the cabbage has no other life to hope for.’ Below, on the unmarked sill, a cleaved melon has come to rest. The seeded surface of its hacked interior is the only area in the painting that is free from shadow; yet, here, unadulterated light seems indecent, intrusive, exposing the disarrayed pips and the dent of the severing blade to disquieting effect. Beside the melon is a slice of itself, one end in the merciful umbra of its bigger portion, the other end rent from its stippled skin. A year or so after he completed the painting, Sánchez Cotán joined a Carthusian monastery, part of a Catholic order whose emphasis on contemplation meant that the monks passed their days in silence and solitude. Perhaps only a painter with the capacity for hermetic spiritual dedication would feel moved to wrench these humble comestibles away from the raucous chaos of a muggy kitchen and present them in isolation. As De Bergerac, writing less than 50 years later, said: ‘Plants, in exclusion of mankind, possess perfect philosophy.

Another Spanish painter who created still lifes that transcend the daily round is Francisco de Zurbarán. It is not surprising to discover that the artist was very much influenced by Sánchez Cotán. As in Sánchez Cotán’s windowsill, the table of his Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose (1633) is placid and unmarked: there are no traces of human tasks, no nicks in the wood, no stains from previous repasts and neither of the table’s two ends can be seen. There is a similar precise ordering of objects and, like his predecessor, Zurbarán conjures mesmerizing black backdrops that pull our attention through the tangible elements onto an amorphous metaphysical plane. A metal dish of four citrons stands in front of this darkness, the fruit nosing the static air like deracinated moles. On the right is a saucer, upon which a cup of water stands askew, watched by a pale rose poised on the rim. Between both is a basket piled with coy oranges and a sprig of spiky blossom. The light on this arrangement seems to be coming from behind my left shoulder, picking out the protuberant lemons, some of the huddled oranges and one side of the obstinate cup, where it stops. The light does not, or cannot, penetrate the darkness behind; we could be anywhere. I do not consider what hand gathered and organized this produce, nor what mouth will consume it; again, these fruits are not for eating. This is not a slice of life.

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Experimental Zones

Charlie Fox for frieze
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Charlie Fox reviews ‘Basquiat: Boom For Real’: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s first UK retrospective at London’s Barbican Centre

Back in 1982, the critic Rene Ricard discerned that Basquiat’s ‘earlier paintings were a logical extension of what you could do with a city wall’. His canvases are experimental zones where he explores the picture as an exploding galaxy of information (Pegasus, 1987) and the portrait as some digressive freak-out: Five Fish Species, 1983, dedicated to William Burroughs, is littered with factoids, quotations and dates drawn from the master’s dark biography. They operate like fields of strangely musical noise: words repeating, odd mixtures of art brut or antique material in duet, favourite themes (fame, death, cities, economics) resurrected or ripped apart. Skunks, leeches, Titian, boxing matches, dogs, Straight, No Chaser (1965) by Thelonious Monk, notebook scrawls about ‘the germs on a spoon behind the oven’: Basquiat turns his brain inside-out in encyclopaedic fashion. This data is also a wormhole of personal code and allusion: severed ears, the word ‘tar’, a feast of snakes hinting at poisons in his system and creeps trying to win his fortune. Sometimes he finds sucker-punch eloquence in drawing little more than a bone or tooth.

The same contrary energies are at play through his raid on art history. Basquiat figured out early that painting could be a patricidal game. (Hoban’s book seethes with his alternate bad feelings towards and eagerness to please his father.) For Untitled (World Trade Towers) (1981), he stages what he calls elsewhere ‘a flashback to his childhood files’ – revisiting the moment when he was hit by a car, aged seven – in the spirit of Cy Twombly with amphetamine psychosis. But for a few gobbets of blood-red gore, the scene is all scary monochrome: electrified Roman numerals mix with wonky alphabets and blurred shadows. Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits (1982) maims juicy parts of the genius’s back catalogue, turning the head of Vitruvian Man (1490) into a blast of static. Homage deforms into parody: wicked jokes at the expense of dead elders.

The raw facts of being the rare black kid within the white art world are also at play in his rambunctious attitude to the canon. (One creepy tidbit sees him alter a headshot of Warhol, creating Drella in blackface.) He provided acid commentary on the art world’s crook economics and ominous exclusions from the beginning. Site-specific riddles, Basquiat’s Samo graffiti comes from the same wish to unsettle or seduce the bougie crowd. A room of Henry Flynt photographs track him like a character from downtown folklore, half secret agent, half ghost, the cryptic one-liners appearing between cracked windowpanes and filthy paving slabs, words faint as ectoplasm: ‘Samo as a result of overexposure’. (Is the critic Greg Tate correct that everybody should hear ‘sambo’ stashed inside ‘Samo’, short for ‘same old shit’?) Like Warhol, Basquiat was always conscious of art’s proximity to prank. He scribbles factoids about his big daddy predecessors on brown paper for Untitled (Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Duchamp, Pollock) (1986–87), knowing his hand transforms mere art historical rehash into treasure. It indicates his typical wily self-consciousness about his status as a commodity – Basquiat garlanded his work with copyright symbols – but also his fixation on art history and whatever afterlife it assures.

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One Take: Incoming

Christy Lange for Frieze
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Writing for frieze, Christy Lange takes a look at Richard Mosse’s latest video installation that peers at the refugee crisis through an alien lens.

There are a few scenes in Richard Mosse’s new video installation, Incoming (2017), where you can see photo-journalists or news camerapeople chasing down the unfolding action or holding their lenses steady to catch the decisive moment. Mosse, on the other hand, spent two years filming the same events with a camera that was too large to hold, had no aperture to see through and was difficult to focus. Designed by a weapons manufacturer, the thermal camera Mosse used to document the migrant crisis for Incoming is built to capture heat signatures – in black, white and shades of grey. It weighs 23 kilogrammes, and is meant to be operated remotely by a laptop. As Mosse puts it: ‘The camera is designed to stand on a sentry pole in the middle of the desert,’ detecting a human body’s heat from up to 30 kilometres away for surveillance or targeting. Together with his cameraman, Trevor Tweeten, and the camera’s original designer, Mosse adapted an Xbox controller to operate it and an old Steadicam mechanism as support. As an apparatus designed for surveillance, the thermal camera represents part of the spectrum the human eye cannot see and, as such, is an apt metaphor for the vast and ungraspable refugee crisis – the lives that ‘register’ but are not ‘seen’.

The 52 minutes of footage that comprise Incoming, slowed down from the camera’s 60 frames per second to 24 frames per second, is by turns lyrical and vivid, harrowing and violent. The action unfolds across three large screens – from one screen at a time to two, then all three simul-taneously. Much like his previous endeavour, The Enclave (2013), which Mosse filmed in the eastern Congo with outdated infrared film, originally designed for military use, the photographic technology presents inherent challenges and unintentional aesthetic call backs. In The Enclave, the infrared film responded to chlorophyll in plants to make the jungle’s green foliage look bright pink. In Incoming, the thermal camera also works an extra-sensory tool to perceive thermal radiation, rendering it black on white or white on black. It allowed Mosse and his team to detect missiles landing in Aleppo from the other side of the Turkish border, ships sinking in the Aegean Sea miles offshore, and gunmen and refugees being smuggled at night. The otherworldly footage evokes the sense that we are watching the action covertly, as if through night-vision goggles; it’s a rare glimpse through the mechanized tools of surveillance used by states and militaries to view us. When we do see close-ups of faces, noses appear like indistinct white blobs and eyes are dark pits. Humans become fleshy targets susceptible to the camera’s weaponized gaze. It’s a representational device that draws powerful parallels between the act of documentation and surveillance.

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Know Your Place

Dan Fox writing for Frieze
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From blue collar to new affluence, Dan Fox tackles the issue of social class in the art world, for Frieze magazine:

Hyde Park, London. It’s 5 July 1969 and the artists Gilbert & George are walking through the crowd at the Rolling Stones’ concert in tribute to band member Brian Jones, found dead in his swimming pool two days earlier. In a photograph taken for the Daily Mirror newspaper, the artists are captured wearing light-toned suits, shirts and patterned ties, with carnation buttonholes, as if they are attending a society wedding. Yet, they look uncharacteristically dishevelled: ties askew, hair blowing in the breeze. Leslie Woodhead and Jo Durden-Smith’s documentary of the day’s concert, The Stones in the Park (1969), shows hundreds of flower children basking in the sunshine under the fractious eyes of the Hell’s Angels security detail. Amongst them, Gilbert & George look like bankers from an alien planet, there to out-freak the underground freak scene. One detail makes them fit in: metallic body paint on their faces and hands, which looks like badly applied fake tan. Yet, their mimicry of conservative British masculinity still manages to wrong-foot expectations of how artists or other creative types associated with old-fashioned avant-gardism should present themselves.

Gilbert & George costumed themselves as urbane gentlemen of the upper classes, but lived in a then-run-down area of east London. Their suits afforded them invisibility: a cloak of conformity that allowed them to forge ahead with their extraordinary project to make their lives into a total artwork. It was a look that, paradoxically, made them stand out amongst their peers in Swinging London because it suggested that nothing could be more conformist than growing your hair and slipping on a kaftan. But, more to the point, in class-neurotic Britain, their appearance gave the lie to assumptions as to which social bracket artists should dress for. Gilbert & George punctured a self-flattering affectation of blue-collar solidarity that persists amongst certain artists: the fantasy that artists are workers in the same way builders, firemen or mechanics are. (In her 1977 essay ‘The Pink Glass Swan’, Lucy Lippard describes artists who are ‘persistently working “up” to be accepted, not only by other artists, but also by the hierarchy that exhibits, writes about and buys her/his work. At the same time, s/he is often ideologically working “down” in an attempt to identify with the workers outside of the art context.’) Were Gilbert & George rich or poor? Upper-class toffs on the skids or lower-middle-class clerks on the rise? It was hard to tell.

That was, I suspect, the point. George was brought up by a single mother and worked a number of jobs in London – in Selfridges department store, as a barman at the Players’ Theatre Club – before meeting Gilbert at Central St Martin’s School of Art in 1967. Gilbert came from a family of shoemakers in a village in the Italian Dolomites. Did that matter? Certainly, gaming the visual codes of the British class system was folded deep into their artistic strategies. It was a way of making us laugh when they called themselves George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit for their 1970 ‘magazine sculpture’, or when we watched them get tight on gin to the music of Edvard Grieg in their 1972 video Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk. For many artists from the UK, class is inescapable – a facet of work and identity. In 1990s Britain, artists such as Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas actively played up their backgrounds. Tabloid headlines were appropriated to redefine conversations around female sexuality. The British working-class seaside holiday or the souvenir shop were used as tropes to talk about ownership and independence: in 1992, Emin and Lucas bought a beach hut in Whitstable and, the following year, they ran a shop together.

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Dan Fox’s 2014 Highlights

In frieze magazine
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frieze co-editor Dan Fox, who is currently writing a book for Fitzcarraldo Editions, rounds up this year’s highlights in film, art, music, etc.:

As far as disgraceful social injustice and disgusting political corruption go, 2014 was a vintage year. So for me, two of the most significant works made by artists in 2014 were not artworks. The first of these, Laura Poitras’s film CITIZENFOUR, is an astonishing historical document, recording the days and weeks during which Edward Snowden’s revelations about electronic government surveillance became one of the defining political stories of our age. Whether or not CITIZENFOUR is a ‘good’ documentary in the aesthetic sense is neither here nor there. Since the film’s release in October, I’ve had numerous arguments with people who think that Poitras could have ‘done more’ with her footage. I think they are missing the point. (What do you want? A nine-channel HD video installation featuring the complexities of electronic surveillance explained through a Judson Church-influenced dance sequence, sound-tracked by Miley Cyrus, and accompanied by a collateral programme of talks and film screenings?) What CITIZENFOUR makes clear is how few documentary films actually record a story of global proportions unfolding in front of the director’s camera. Here is a subject that needs no embellishment, no artistic lace doilies. CITIZENFOUR will be seen in the future as an exceptional piece of primary historical evidence. I left the cinema stunned by the courage of those involved in breaking the story, and in the production of this film.

Perhaps CITIZENFOUR felt all the more urgent because 2014 was a miserably grim year in world news, and Poitras’s film was just one particularly explicit expression of our frustration at the current shape of power. Which brings me to the second notable non-artwork by artists this year: The W.A.G.E. Certification campaign by New York-based artist group Working Artists for the Greater Economy. In the organization’s own words, ‘Certification is a voluntary program initiated and operated by W.A.G.E. that publicly recognizes non-profit arts organizations demonstrating a history of, and commitment to, voluntarily paying artist fees that meet a minimum payment standard.’ In October, New York’s Artists Space was the first non-profit gallery to sign up to the scheme, an important gesture in a town held in the vice-grip of unchecked real estate greed and increasing economic disparity. (‘People like you lose all claim to respect the first time they pay anybody rent,’ remarks Crocker Fenway, a ruthless businessman in Paul Thomas Anderson’sInherent Vice. Both the film and the Thomas Pynchon novel it is based on are set in 1970, but that’s a line aimed right between the eyes of 2014.)

‘But c’mon Fox,’ I hear you cry, ‘we’re here to read about art not the price of eggs!’ OK, fair enough. 2014, for me, often seemed to have its gaze fixed on the past rather than the present, and notable retrospectives and surveys were thick on the ground. ‘The Heart is Not a Metaphor’, Robert Gober’s ‘this is your life’ moment at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, may not have been quite the immersive experience as his 2007 career overview at Basel’s Schaulager was, but I rarely tire of seeing his sculptures and installations. Gober’s work serves as a gentle and often moving reminder that Surrealism is the one art movement that never really disappeared or lost its power to disturb and entrance. I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed ‘Night and Day’, Chris Ofili’s victory lap at the New Museum, New York. In Britain during the 1990s heyday of Young British Art, Ofili’s work was so often reproduced in the media that it lost some of its pizzazz through overfamiliarity, so perhaps absence has made the heart grow fonder. (Protests erupted in New York when his 1996 painting The Holy Virgin Mary was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999. In 2014, we’ve got far bigger problems to worry about than offending the sensibilities of a few iconodule Catholics.) Amy Sillman’s survey show ‘One Lump or Two’ at the Hessel Museum of Art/CCS Bard (which toured from the ICA Boston) was not just funny and imaginative, but a testament to the possibilities of painting, and ‘The Production Line of Happiness’ – a wonderfully titled retrospective of Christopher Williams’ photography at the Art Institute of Chicago and MoMA, New York – was as crisply milled as the glass on a Leica lens.

Many of the past year’s retrospectives were dedicated to the sadly departed. We had Sigmar Polke’s inventive mischief at MoMA, New York and Tate Modern, London; Sturtevant’s pioneering work in the field of appropriation – also at MoMA – and a moving exhibition of painting by Leonilsson at the Pinacoteca do Estado São Paulo. And I mustn’t forget the small but knockout selection of small paintings by US artist Albert York at Matthew Marks Gallery, New York; bucolic landscapes, still lifes and allegorical works suggesting what Giorgio Morandi and Odilon Redon might have painted had they lived on Long Island.

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