Tuesday, 10 November 2009




Or maybe not...

We think naturally of sound when considering the ear, so there's a certain wilful perversity in making it the subject of a show of paintings, drawings and photographs with no sound directly featured. It does mean, though, that the walls have ears. And that provides an opportunity for different perspectives, looking at the ear as a design, signifier, analogy, symbol etc, and always with the sense that there is something beyond what we see...

Consistent with that, rather than write about what is in the show,  here are a few things which aren't, but which came to mind in putting it together. Let's start with what I would guess are the three most famous paintings on the theme.

Hieronymus Bosch: Detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1490-1510

Two enormous ears, pierced by an arrow and cut by a knife, are prominent in the bizarre goings-on in Bosch's Hell. Interpretations of his symbols are speculative, but this       contraption has been said to symbolise man's deafness to the New Testament exhortation: 'If any man have ears to listen, let him hear.' Sadly, Bosch's great triptych never leaves Madrid.

Johannes Vermeer: Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665

Not many paintings have inspired a best-selling novel... I suspect it's the way the pearl earring echoes the eyes which makes this the most subtly erotic painting, a well as the most famous, to draw attention to the auricular zone.


Vincent van GoghSelf-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889

The outcome of the most notorious ear incident isn't far way - the Courtauld owns  this painting - but arranging a loan might have been awkward...   The latest research confirms that Vincent cut off the whole ear, so giving an automatic art reference to the various more recent sculptural treatments of an ear.

Kelvin Okafor: Identity Series - Ear, 2014

Kelvin Okafor is known for his stunningly achieved graphite and charcoal portrait drawings of his friends, such as the exhibition's  Katherine's Interlude. Here though is a self-portrait which, paradoxically, shows only his ear, posing the question: how many people could you recognise from such a view?


Vincent van Gogh: Ears of Wheat, 1890

There are actually two strands to van Gogh's ear works, as he painted wheat fields consistently during 1885-90: drawn to biblical parables, his empathy with manual labourers and colour in nature: 'Are we not ourselves very much like wheat... to be reaped when we are ripe?', he asked.  This, from his late Auvers-sur-Oise months, is one of his most  'all-over' compositions.

Emmanuel Sougez: Three Ears of Wheat, 1929/30

While we're on cereal, Emmanuel Sougez (1899-1972) was a French photographer known for an intense metaphysical focus on still life objects, as in this monumental, almost architectural, gelatin print of three partial ears of wheat.         


Meret Oppenheim: Giacometti's Ear, 1935

Oppenheim befriended Giacometti when she arrived in Paris in 1932, and may be referring to his use of cast body parts in the elegant construction of this ear from other elements.  Comparison with photographs of Giacometti suggests, however, that is a far from accurate portrait in terms of his earshape, rather normalising the sculptor's own elongated form.

Guillaume Leblon: Portrait, 2016
I can't vouch for the accuracy of French artist Guillaume Leblon's portrait of his young son through the synecdoche of his ear, but I'd be surprised is such a tender portrayal were not accurate in its opaline rose glass. It gives rise to the thought: how many other parts could one use similarly without it looking rather more disturbing than affecting?

David Shepherd: Wise Old Elephant - unlimited print  from his 1962 painting

This was the world's best-selling print in the 1960's, launching  David Shepherd's career as a wildlife artist and conservationist. His commercial success was built on two failures: when, on leaving school, he travelled to Kenya hoping  to become a game warden; and when he was rejected by the Slade on his return to England. Critical acclaim has eluded him, too, but few paintings have such a high proportion of ear. 

Joyce Pensato: On the Way, 2008

Mickey Mouse probably has the most famous ears in popular culture, and many artists have used him. Joyce Pensato deconstructs pop art's cartoon icons by crossing them rather brutally with  Abstract Expressionism. The battered energy of her charcoal and pastel here leads to a typical balance of humour and grotesquery.

Rachel Maclean: still from Germs (2013)

The ears are often striking parts of Rachel Maclean's many ways of dressing herself up to appear as the only actor in her super-saturated worlds. As a germ, appearing in parody adverts for killing them, does she have five hands, three of them oddly placed - or three hand-like ears, only one curiously  located? 

Euan Uglow: Marigold, 1969 


Typically, this night painting  reaches what Lawrence Gowing termed Uglow's ‘subversive traditionalism’ by forcing  close examination through the process of measurement. Unlike any other Uglow work, though, Marigold features a black model - and centres on her ear.

Suzanne Dworsky:  Sea Breeze, 1978

This is from the American photographer's a set of close-cropped images of Cape Cod. What's nice here is  the intimacy of focus, enhanced by the rainbow heart, and the implications teed up by the title: of action - through the blown hair - and sound: breeze, breath, waves.


Clive Hodgson: Untitled, 2014

Only in the context of the other works is this abstraction likely to appear auricular. Hodgson certainly had no such intention, but its typically prominent signature (calling knowing attention to its making) might then make it a self-portrait of sorts, so I relate it to van Gogh, whereas the following has more of a Vermeer connection...


Jonathan MonkPierced Portraits (#22) (Woman with gold earring), 2004

In typically mischievous style, Monk has simply pushed a red drawing pin  into a series of found vintage drawings of women, a violent subversion referencing Fontana, playing with the differing realities of image and object, and suggesting some sort of rebellious intent to this mid-20th century subject's earwear. Or is it just that the drawing is sold?

Georgia O'Keeffe: Red Hill And White Shell, 1938     

Not so much a word in your shell-like as a suggestion that the landscape might be listening to us, just as we should listen to it. That aside, one of O'Keeffe's best meldings of geometry and colour in the guise of representations in which the body never seems far away.


Colin Crumplin: Ear (Evander Holyfield), 2000
At 286x238cm this was just too big for the space, but it references perhaps the second most famous ear wound  in history - Mike Tyson taking a chunk out of Evander Holyfield's ear in 1997. It also illustrates Crumplin's unique process of matching a semi-randomly generated abstraction with a found image which he then paints in realistic manner - it often takes him years to find a match, so this was pretty quick.


Tony Cragg: We, 2016

This is a somewhat atypical Tony Cragg, given he's known for suggesting the face only on careful examination of his 'Rational Beings' series. It's very much the royal we of self-portraits, with 250-odd cragg-heads built into a giant conehead. It may well have more ears than any other sculpture. So much listening power put me in mind of...

Nedko Solakov: Ears, 2016

Nedko Solakov tells stories which may or may not be literally true, though he has said that he didn't invent his youthful involvement with the Bulgarian Secret Service. That inspired his Top Secret installation made just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which gained attention at Documenta 12 in 2007, and lies behind this combination of aluminium casts and text as we approach Documenta 14.

Femmy Otten: The discomfort of rationality, 2016 

Upcoming Dutch artist Femmy Otten mixes mythologies and eras liberally, and there's something of Gaugin's sculpture in this oil on burl wood face-of-sorts. The theme of ear inversion recurs: has the mind gone beyond normal physiognomy as well as its awkward rationality to reach a  transcendental space of dream colour?  


Eva Kotátková: image from Anatomical Orchestra, 2014

Back at East European listening, the Czech Eva Kotátková explores how conditions constrain the individual. She says the installation and performances of Anatomical Orchestra explore 'an ill or disabled body, one whose senses are not functioning, as a result of which the body becomes a partially empty shell not able to fully use its potential, or one missing sense becomes replaced by another that’s far more sensitive and developed' - as when a blind man develops enhanced hearing. 

John Baldesarri: Beethoven's Trumpet (With Ear) Opus # 133,  2007   

This stick-your-head-in sculpture was inspired by Beethoven's own collection of ear trumpets, and is silent until the viewer speaks into it - then a random section from a late Beethoven quartet is heard. It's as if a communicative link has been made, yet if this is the composer's deaf ear, then the surreal absurdity extends from how it looks to what it does...


Richard Deacon: Tall Tree in the Ear, 1984

This two part sculpture isn't so much tree and ear as, according to Deacon, a title which fits the work as 'the shiny metal could be aerial and the blue could be sky or water, and the shape could be an ear or whatever, and the height is the height of the tree'. But it was 'the difference between the inside and the outside as the material gathers on the inside' that he thought was the interesting bit - which does suggest how what we hear isn't simply what arrives. 

Pieter Hugo Escort Kama, Enugu, Nigeria, 2008
This is from South African photographer Pieter Hugo's 'Nollywood' series, for which he asked a  prolific director to help him work  with actors from the world's third largest film industry - Nigeria makes 1,000 films a year. The scenes are staged melodramatically as myths in which everything is exaggerated - here including the ears - yet that could be just the documentation of a highly theatrical movie.

Roger Ballen: Dersie and Casie Twins , Western Transvaal,1993

Yet perhaps that wasn't such an exaggeration... It's hard not to focus on the ears in the most famous of Roger Ballen's images of rural white South African communities in the apartheid years, which focused on the failure of the regime to treat equitably even the whites who didn't fit the agenda of the privileged class. One was working inside, one outside when Ballen came across them, hence the contrast in shirts.


David Lynch: still from Blue Velvet, 1986

Cathy Lomax, who invited me to put together 'Ears for the Eye', combines the worlds of film and painting, so it seems only fair to conclude with the most famous cinematic organ of hearing: Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) discovers a severed ear in Blue Velvet's opening scene, and it triggers a journey into the seedy underbelly behind suburban appearances. You never know where an ear will lead...



I love the time of dangle-down -
my flesh in her flesh, my movements
her movements, my panorama hers -
the days when his whispers are mine.

I hate the time of jumbled up.
Unjewelled by the dark, I sweat:
why should she take me off by night?
What rumours are these about studs?

Paul Carey-Kent

Her Peculiar Oblations

sorted it weeks ago
so I don't have to pour oil
down my ears. I do anyway.
'Twice a day, twenty minutes'
said Nurse Florid in April
and then quite dreamily
as if considering the eye of the needle
'April is the cruellest month.'
Then she heaved herself
around the Treatment Room
in a miasma of giggles
'Oh, I do love ears!'
shooting her syringe
towards the ceiling
like the cowgirl in a B-movie
who gives it hard
and takes it hard
and who, by the end, is just one of the boys.
When I walked out
of Nurse Florid's Treatment Room
in dazzling April
my ears were so clean
I thought of banging out
an Alleluia with the Baptists.
I miss Nurse Florid
and her peculiar oblations.
I do it for her mostly.
Julian Stannard

A Charm for Earwigs 

Witchy-beetle, forkin-robin,
no one heard you as you clambered
up the nursery slopes of pillow,

felt your way in heaving darkness
where a dreamer breathed siroccos,
scaled the north face of an earlobe,
stumbled on the antihelix
where the cartilage was ruckled
into an upended mizmaze,

teetered round its corrugations,
to the vortex where the tragus
overhung a bloodwarm grotto.
There was curl-room in the concha
but the scent of earwax drew you
through a straight and oozy burrow,
thrumming with a distant heartbeat.
First the walls were soft, then bony,
then antennae scratched a membrane.
Arrywiggle, horny-gollach,
you awoke me from my stupor,
rasping with a chitin stylus
on my mind’s long-playing vinyl,
ratcheting my taut tympanum
with your cacophonic tarsi,
set my ossicles percussing
with the clangour of rough music,
dustbins, copper saucepans, kettles.
Now I smear a linen poultice
with the pulp of roasted apple,
press it, wincing, on my pinna.
Malic steam pervades my chambers
to entice you with a perfume
sweeter than November compost.
Clipshears, codgybell, twitch-ballock,
lift your bristles from my eardrum,
let the sea of cochlea settle,
turn back from the labyrinth.

Matthew Francis

witchy-beetle, forkin-robin, arrywiggle, horny-gollach, clipshears, codgybell,
twitch-ballock = dialect words for earwig - MF




I am reading a poem about silence
where Beethoven appears in the last line,
straining to hear his own symphony.
The waiting room is full of muffled coughs,
whispered conversations, soft tread
of the intern’s surgery slippers on the tiled floor.

The doctor looks deep inside, probes a thin needle
into the inner chamber, applies suction,
I can hear a long ball, then pop. The room is full
of creeks and songs, a sonic hum
I've never heard before, the low tone of dog whistles.
I am Super Ear. The doctor’s voice resonates
inside my body. I carry his clear vowels home
and on the way I try to remember everything
I didn't hear, the thousand daily sounds
that just washed over, or disappeared,
in case I have lost something important,
a phrase that might have changed my life,
the music of a new language.

Tamar Yoseloff

Hear in the Art

Jump red tick
Drum my rib

Jump red tick
Ear in the heart

Jump red tick
Sound me out

Jump red tick
Herd this us

Jump red tick
Bug lug vamp 

Claire Crowther

'I saw a red tick and I have a friend with Lyme disease, which has kind of ruined his life except he’s anything but a ruined person, and the tick jumped and looked to me like a heart - shape, colour, jump-jumpiness.'  - CC

Her Earrings

Cautiously - is that the door? -
I quantify her habit:
three boxes with thirty four

pairs (admittedly five from me),
two lonely extras (one mine -
a parrot whose mate flew free

in high winds at Devil’s Dyke)
plus the six she always wears.
Eighty-odd, of which I like

especially the bamboo
drops which, looking so heavy,
yet fall light; the dangle-zoo

with lizards and swinging apes;
the yellow shells - with the surge
of the sea on tap, perhaps -

and the abstracts which make her
a miniature gallery.
But enactments talk louder

than taste; and more than suggest
that of all her adornments
I love this repertoire best -

for what do I tend to buy
as proof? And what does she wear
that I never even try

to take off? In ears we share
a mild imbalance - with which
we’re happy, being a pair.

Paul Carey-Kent

Poems to follow by Saradha Soobrayen, Joan MacGavin and Steph Carey-Kent.

Writing to follow: EJ Major on Deleuze and cinema, Alli Sharma on echolocation and Cathy Lomax on the ear in film.

Cathy Lomax: Audrey's Ear, 2017



Clare Price: t.h.10, 2016
oil and acrylic on canvas,  31x36cm


EJ Major: Matiére Signalétique
Selected film stills, 2017

John Banting: Dead Gossip, 1931
Gouache on card - 48 x 63.5 cm (courtesy
Austin Desmond Fine Art)




Alli Sharma: from the Bats series, 2009,
each oil on board, 20 x 15 cm

Adam Dix: The Collectors2013.
Ink and oil on paper - 72 x 52 cm
Kelvin Okafor: Katherine's Interlude, 2016
Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 79 x 67 cm 

Jonny Briggs: Forward Slashes Series # 1, 2013

Altered family photograph, 15 x 18cm


Clare Price: t.h.9, 2016

acrylic on canvas,  31x36cm

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About Me

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Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom
I was in my leisure time Editor at Large of Art World magazine (which ran 2007-09)and now write freelance for such as Art Monthly, The Art Newspaper and Border Crossings. I have curated five shows in London during 2013-15 with more on the way.Going back a bit my main writing background is poetry. My day job is public sector financial management.