|Queen of the Screen (A4 Lightbox), 2011|
Paul Carey-Kent talks to young multimedia artist and performer Helen Carmel Benigson ahead of her new London solo show at Rollo Contemporary, which runs from 11 November – 13 January. You can also get a taste of her distinctive world at Helen TV: http://www.helenbenigson.com/
Benigson’s new solo show, to be followed soon by a retrospective at the James Hockey Gallery in Farnham, is a multi-media case of excess all areas: performance, video, photographs, monotypes, prints, videos on top of video, video on the pavement outside, stickers in the window, a tie-in to Helen’s TV... Themes and identities weave their way between the works, and it all builds towards one increasingly complex – and assertively pink, young and female – view of the world. With all the layering, immersion and sexualisation going on, it’s not surprising that Benigson has been called the Pipilotti Rist for a media-savvy generation: there’s naturalness to her use of digital media, social networking and video sharing sites which suggests a sense in which the screen might take over from the body. And yet she’s in the current issue of Vogue…
You’ve just finished an MA at the Slade. What next?
I’ve just got onto the one year Lux Associate Artist programme, which provides mentoring and support for eight artists to make films, and sponsors a concluding show.
There seem to be a lot of you. How many identities have you got?
Versions of me include my cousin, girl hip hop dancers, an avatar princess, Princess Belsize Dollar, my online profile
Is all the work here by Helen?
Yes, Princess is only for performance, though she does feed in to Helen’s work, and sometimes Helen features Princess as a subject. The rapper is part a different person who is a character I play but who is part of me…
You’re rapping as Princess Belsize Dollar at your opening, but there will also be a game of poker. Why?
I’m interested in both performance and games. I examine the screen as a virtual space which is also an architectural space which can stimulate image and performance – and poker is the ultimate game which uses performance as a device, through tells, bluffing and concealment. I’m not looking to control the poker in the way I’ve previously controlled male rappers by making them use my words to seduce me. This is purely about performance. Poker is also one of those things I love – along with roses, sushi, rappers, palm trees, the beach, soldiers, footballers and boys who play Fantasy Football – all of which appear in my work. My friends say looking at my work is like seeing inside my brain.
The film ‘The Future Queen of the Screen’ features avatars. Where are they from?
They’re dueling dancers from a video game. I played it so as to make the characters do what I wanted them to, and then intervened in the film as well. They stand in for the real hip hop dancers, who also appear in the film. I’ve performed with them and so they stand in for me.
What’s the story of the film?
There are two narratives: one is an imaginary space set in the Dead Sea, exploring the subconscious - it is a space of thought and reflection, it is a much slower space, using the idea of the landscape as a metaphor for body. I was also thinking of the girl as a metaphor for Israel. In the other narrative two dancers upload their video to YouTube and have a dance battle with another girl online. They start a relationship with fantasy footballers who persuade them to upload the videos to YouPorn. They then have to escape YouPorn, so they escape to a different universe, to an imaginary dry space represented by the Dead Sea. I might have called it ‘Duels and Dualities’ if David Blandy hadn’t got there first!
The longest film, ‘Clara’ (9 minutes) collages and revisits footage from previous films. There’s hyper-saturated colour and sexual fireworks in-cell-like interjections. The explosions mutate into darkly violent patterns. There are recurring images of you in a swimming pool and a woman disappearing down a waterslide like a plug-hole. What pulls all that together for you?
Immersion, infection and infestation are important. My various selves are multiplied. And I’m obsessed with manipulating and challenging borderlines: much of the content does that, and there’s also a literal border on the video, made from more doubled images. I’m breaking down any borders between my works.
‘Cellular’ seems to move in a new direction, as it looks like one straight unedited 6 minute shot which moves around the women’s section of a maximum security prison in Cape Town…
It is one continuous shot from a car, all taken within the prison complex. But we did have to get security clearance, and then drive round taking that one shot several times!
So it’s the sound, rather than the images, which is layered here?
Yes, the women, inside their cells, call out to me and as I travel deeper in, and their voices become more visceral as I layer and intensify their calls.
And this becomes another way to build cells into the work?
Yes, the prison cell works as both a political container and a biological space. I can identify with the prisoners on a corporeal level, occupying a cell, negotiating power, sexuality, identity.
|Pink Beach (Lightbox), 2011|
‘Cellular’ is the first in another duality: of women-only spaces, the second being the women’s beach in Tel Aviv, which appears in several works including the films ‘Fireworks on a Blue Beach’ and ‘Superwet’. It turns out be a surprisingly pink place, though perhaps not so surprisingly so among your works…
For all of these spaces it’s about viscerally which is manifest via colour, sound and performance.
The superficial beauty and rather sexual-style of consumption of sushi by your cousin in an overlaid close-up draws us in to contrasts…
Yes, there are explosions, made even more sinister by its being Israel. And my cousin seems to be eating the people on the beach. Then the beach, spread across her face, becomes a veil. You can interpret that as political. The people are green, becoming viral in the pink sea, and suggesting the avatars in other works.
Why is wet and dry one of your favourite contrasts?
There’s an analogy for me with my use of the macro – micro, between the excitement of the screen being switched on, turned on – wet. And yet the disappointment if you zoom in on an image until it’s just a single pixel – because when this happens, you’ve reached the inside of the image and it becomes just a code. That’s dry.
Are you aiming at a young person’s sensibility, and asserting a young person’s identity?
That’s more a by-product of its being centered round my world. My practice is exploring identity, and being young is just part of that.
So what kind of artist are you? One of your monotypes says, ‘This is my life, not a soap opera’.
I don’t consider myself an artist, just a girl. But I am addicted to making art.
Charlotte Posenenske @ the Hansard Gallery, Southampton: 25 Jan – 9 March, 2011 (for ArtUS)
The gallery linked to Southampton University presented the fullest account yet seen in Britain of Charlotte Posenenske (1930 -85), a German artist who has become widely known only since she featured in Documenta four years ago. The show consisted of works on paper from the 1950's, showing restrained expressive tendencies; and remakes of her pared-back sculpture of the mid-sixties, concentrating on the influential work she made in 1967 before giving up art for a career in sociology. Her widower, Burkhard Brunn, was closely involved: he manages the estate in accordance with Posenenske's own principles, selling the occasional original prototype to subsidise making unlimited editions available.
Superficially, Posenenske's mature work looks like variations on Donald Judd, from whom she may seem be diverge mainly in abandoning art in frustration at its inability to deliver social change. Yet Brunn himself says that though Posenenske was aware of the American trends of the time, she came from a different place: her movement from the subjectivity of painted illusion to the objectivity of geometric regularity may echo the minimalists, but Posenenske's primary interest was in participation.
That is most obvious in those works which viewers are able to physically rearrange, but it’s also present in her collaboration with others in manufacture and installation; her acceptance - in contrast to the finish fetish typical of minimalism - of finger marks and graffiti as signs of the work being used; and in her desire to make art an industrial consumable available to everyone. Her unlimited editions at cost price sought to avoid any complicity with the market, and she used corrugated pasteboard as a light, cheap and disposable material. Accordingly, Brunn sees Posenenske's switch to the field of industrial relations as a way to pursue the same interest in participation through different means – ‘she had had two hearts in her breast' as he puts it: one for art and one for social studies.
But does Posenenske’s art do more than predate the fashion for ‘relational aesthetics’? Two further aspects interest me.
First, Posenenske makes subtly explicit many of the issues which are implicitly faced by all art: how one work fits within a wider practice; the individual’s participative role not just in perceiving the work but in constructing the conditions of its production and reception; the place of that production within the market; and the definitional boundaries of what can count as art.
To illustrate: the open-ended seriality of Posenenske’s potentially endlessly reproducible pieces sets out to be part of a system, any one piece taking its place within a community of existing or potential works, chiming with how society is full of systems which cannot be comprehended from individual transactions within them. The art market is one such. In the manifesto which Posenenske published in Art Forum in February 1968, she says that she ‘makes series because I do not want to make single pieces for individuals’. That forms part of an anti-market stance which challenges the status of factory products as art in sharp contrast to what Warhol made of that model of production.
Second, there’s some sort of dissonance between Posenenske's objects – which are gentle and a little conservative – and the ideas behind them, which are fierce and idealistic. That contrast gives Posenenske's sculpture a curiously plangent effect. Thus when she disrupts the surface in the elegant ‘Diagonal Fold’ (1966), it’s through angles which make the planes ambiguous, rather than by puncturing or attacking the canvas in the manner of Fontana or Parreno. If there’s potential for conflict in interacting with her work, it’s through two visitors attempting to set the doors of her ‘Revolving Vanes’ in different positions, which feels like arguing about who goes into the dining room first.
Perhaps we can go further by reframing Posenenske’s withdrawal from art as a logical end to its reductive trajectory, and so as an art act in itself. What, then, could be quieter – and yet more intense – than silence?
Nika Neelova: Memories of Now
The obvious point of entry to Nika Neelova’s world is through its atmosphere. ‘Monuments’ consists of three brooding installations: stairs, with spear-like railings, which threaten to fall onto us in the process of going nowhere; what looks like an elevated and useless section of railway acting as a burnt gallows, from which coils of charred rope descend; and the ash from that burnt timber spread across four flags, to deny them their usual function of symbolizing power. We’re in a series of fragmented places, linked by darkly evocative materials and by the sense that they could soon tip into an end.
But there’s beauty here in the romantic sublime, which nineteenth century artists found in ruins, and in the detailing of the distress: the understructure of geometrical forms covered by baroque flourishes, the painstaking fabrication - those ropes are cast from twists of paper, the stairs waxed to the max, that ash is sewn into patterns... All this gives a sense of glories passed, for sure, but a feeling too that there’s something subtler to be engaged with here than a theatre of loss. So what is that other way in?
Artists are often inspired by their childhood experiences and seek to revisit them in some way. Proust provides the great literary example, while one of the purest parallels in contemporary art is the hyper-realised tableaux of Martin Honert. Both seek, however hopelessly, to capture things as they were. Nika Neelova may start from a related desire, but her strategy differs fundamentally: she seeks to capture – from memory alone – how those scenes from the past might look now, years later: to catch, if you will, the memory of now.
It’s a difficult task. Not only – as in Proust and Honert – might the fallibility and subjectivity of memory distort that past reality, it’s also a speculative matter to guess to what extent time will have affected the remembered places, and how that might have manifested itself. Add the constraints posed by Neelova’s method, which is to construct these imagined contemporary ruins by collaging together degraded elements from other places, and it is apparent that she is making a point of the impossibility of being ‘right’ in any objective sense. Her desire to remake the track from past to present is balanced by her building into the very nature of her work the practical impossibility of going back.
At 24, Neelova may seem a little young to be driven by such concerns, but they make sense in the context of her itinerant life to date: born in Russia, she lived in France from five to ten years old, returned to Russia until she was 15, then studied in the Netherlands before moving to London in 2008. No wonder all homes strike her as provisional, and she hankers to recapture some sense of the places she has lost.
All of which may sound likely to lead to internally-directed and potentially impenetrable work. Neelova avoids that, though, by two means. First, she constructs those past spaces of hers out of items from other places and other pasts. Second, she’s fascinated by public processes of commemoration. In essence, her works are private monuments which take on a public aspect through standing in for the anonymous mass, generating a circular movement between the public and the private.
In both respects the individual is rooted in the social, and that’s what prevents Neelova slipping into self-indulgence. She shows how our collective and public pasts feed into and out of our individual and private pasts, and in that sense her spaces stand reciprocally for ours.
What’s more, for all that it’s time, not life, which has been lost in them, Neelova’s places remain literally and metaphorically dark. Partly that’s because one kind of loss inevitably bleeds into another. Partly it’s because there’s only way to move on from the frozen state her spaces have reached. And partly it’s because they physically enact the closing off of possibilities. The staircase doesn’t just reach towards space, it’s blocked by the ceiling. The pseudo-railway runs into the walls of the room. The flags of ash jut out on banister poles to impede our natural path through the gallery.
A Freudian might jump on that combination of childhood, memory and blockage. The blockages could be the ego’s defence mechanism, its way of resolving the conflict between the impulses of the id (who knows what the young Neelova wanted to do deep down?) and the more socially-determined beliefs of the superego (how did she think she ought to act?). Yet I don’t think you have to be a Freudian to pick up the sense that darker subconscious forces may lie behind the conscious scenes…
That, perhaps, returns us to atmosphere after all, albeit one enriched by the geometry and gravity, public combinations and private elisions, degradations and blockages which go to make up Nika Neelova’s memories of now.
Paul Carey-Kent: March 2011
Nika Neelova talks to Paul Carey-Kent
Your installations resemble architectural ruins. What draws you in that direction?
The evocation of architectural ruins is indeed very important in my work, as ruins signal simultaneously an absence and a presence. As fragmented and decayed structures they point to a lost and invisible whole, whilst their still visible presence also points to durability and survival. I’m interested in representing spaces which capture the transience of time and contain a sense of lost experiences.
Is that a reference to death or destruction?
No, I don’t see that as representing death. The work is not driven by the tragedy of human loss of the mere brutality of destruction. There is however strong allusion to the fear of mortality, a certain fear of the end, which is so inherent to human nature and perhaps in other metaphorical ways to objects and spaces... That way the sculptures are often shown in the very state before fully collapsing, at the moment when the end is predictable but isn’t there yet.
Though black is the dominant colour…
In this show black mainly refers to the ‘last state’ of materials, wood is charred and burnt, becoming ash and charcoal dust.
These aren’t ruins as found, are they, or as ruined by you, but are constructed out of separately discovered elements?
Yes, I attempt to shift histories using objects that belong to one history and putting them into another context. I like the idea that those other lives bring along a cultural or historical displacement. And though I work with things which are likely to fall apart, I wouldn’t make something broken. It’s always natural decay – due to gravity or age – I don’t force things. I see the decay as something beautiful, but from which you cannot retrieve the original state. It all obeys the law of entropy, which is so persistent in life: you cannot turn back.
Do you have strong visual memories of places?
Most of the works are based on visual memories. I relate to how memories are preserved through places, and how memories preserve corners of places, like floorboards of a once inhabited house or a particular light in the window. I have memories of rooms which I want to recreate – albeit in an exaggerated manner – because articulating the past does not necessarily mean recognizing it the way it really was. Past is the concern of history, and to relive a situation belonging to this history it is necessary to forget everything about the later course of events.
So they are collages of various histories but also make up your own history?
Well, yes, my work incorporates much of my personal history, but I don’t want it to be purely personal – that’s why I try to find objects which belong to a larger history, so it becomes a combination of personal and collective and adopted histories. That is why I often use objects that belong to other histories, that are the real traces of the past. They are the true material witnesses or evidence of the events that have happened. They are the residues of certain histories that are then woven into scenarios which come from my past that I have lived or imagined.
That said, how has your specific personal history informed the work?
I’ve moved around a lot: I was born in the Soviet Union then lived in France, Russia again and the Netherlands before coming to London. That’s why many of my works are inspired by places I have lived in and lost – in the sense of missing something which you can’t get back to, which lives in your memory and is exaggerated or distorted by the years which have passed. That’s how I’ve lived my whole life – raised for a while in a particular place, but knowing I must move on to a completely different beginning. You create or adopt a history which you’re going to have to give up, and that failure to get attached and be grounded somewhere originates this idea in my work.
Are you directly influenced by Russia?
I feel the very different Russian culture is still strong in me, though I have adapted to the West. I find I have both roughness and polish in the work, both the overwhelming baroque exuberance of Russia together with the more minimal, condensed and refined culture here. Both are somewhat distorted in my interpretations, but nevertheless very present and important.
Is London also a particular influence?
I was influenced by the extent to which London commemorates its history. The idea of how people replace memories of people with stones, creating rituals around it. I think this invocation of ritual and heritage creates an interesting meshing of the present and the past. The flag came first from wanting to use the ash which comes from the burning in making previous installations: that tries to preserve a line of continuity in my work. I’m very attracted to the coats of arms and heraldry and dissolving the idea that it should carry an emblem – it carries nothing but decayed material from previous works. The rubber is there just to hold the ash – I would have wanted it to just be ash! Maybe I’m commemorating my work, maybe something else. I was inspired by similar flags in stone at Westminster Cathedral, of which these are fragile versions…
You used performance in some of your earlier work, for example covering a floor with thousands of eggshells to be walked on. Does that remain an aspect of your sculpture now?
I prefer to leave the performance element to be implied now. My work has become more permanent – it is caught in the moment before collapse but can be frozen. It can collapse easily but there is a tension – it has a potential to survive, though it might not. But the relation between the human and the architectural remains important. I keep the scale to natural proportions so the viewer inhabits the work as they would the architecture, so it does have a physical conversation with the viewer, and is also a fragment which refers to being part of something bigger.
This isn’t the first time a staircase has featured in your work…
That’s true… I relate strongly to the gestures of going up and down. The staircases always go nowhere and have some inaccessibility, but they are still reminiscent of the attempt to make the movements. It’s not only about hopelessness, though: the spiral in the staircase is something which never comes back to where it started.
Richard Moon: Plastic time
At Madder 139, 4 Feb - 20 March, 2011
The British artist Richard Moon makes paintings which, without being photorealist, set out to exploit their origins in found photography. He does so through two main streams of work: portraits and fantastical conjunctions. So what distinguishes Moon’s work from the evidently related work of Richter, Polke, Tuymans, Borremans or Currin – all artists whom he admires? I think there are two particularly interesting differentiating characteristics in Moon’s work: first, his treatment of time; second, the way in which he uses ‘plastic rhyme’.
Combinations of Time
Moon is a painter who is equally inspired by history and photography. That is apparent in the diversity and historical precision of his photographic sources: nineteenth century daguerreotype portraits with the artificiality born of long poses; post-mortem images of Victorian children; 1920’s film stills; 1950’s photographs to illustrate knitting patterns. It can also be seen in the unorthodox way in which he mixes methods within a painting – such as flat photo-style areas with expressive backgrounds – as if styles are like colours waiting to be used.
Even his relatively straightforward portrait paintings use two or more different sources, contributing to an unsettling atmosphere which Moon emphasises by introducing his own distortions such as bizarre hairstyles, odd noses and blank eyes. The emotional register is hard to pin down, and Moon’s teasing titles are not designed to help. But there is a feeling that the portraits are staged, as if in front of a photographic backdrop, with a touch of music hall and caricature. We are drawn into speculating on their characters at the same time as we are reminded that they are not real people. It’s almost as if, says Moon, these people know that they don’t exist.
The more fantastical works combine their sources by shape and rhythm, leaving the viewer to puzzle out the possible underlying narratives. They often flirt with the corny and clichéd, only to step uncomfortably beyond. Again, ambiguity abounds: is the boy in ‘Icarus’ having fun with his bizarre aeroplane hat and curious instrument? Or is he the subject of some disturbing medical treatment?
Moon’s use of colour worlds is particularly original. He can date photographs by their colours, from the various tones of black and white, to the earliest hand-tinted methods, to the intensely artificial colours of the 1950s. His paintings follow those choices, ranging from straight black and white, to black and white images which are then colour-tinted, to full colour paintings using whatever colour range may suit – sometimes from the same date as the image’s source, sometimes not.
Thus Moon’s paintings use time to drive their subjects, colour and emotional tone. And their overall effects result from combining different times in complex ways: perhaps the dead eyes of a nineteenth century post-mortem photograph with a pose from the 1930’s and the colour of a 1970’s advert, all through the prism of 2010. In a digital age in which we have routinely come to query the claims of the photograph to give us reality direct, we do still trust old photographs to make an immediate connection with the past, with how a particular person was there and then. Moon colludes with that and captures the sense of an arrested moment with its implications of loss and nostalgia – but just as we start to go along with him, he pulls the rug from under and we realise just how slippery all those pasts can be.
The Uses of Plastic Rhyme
Picasso used the term ‘plastic rhyme’ to refer to the way in which some forms chime with and summon up others in a parallel to the way aural rhyme links words. Richard Moon finds that such rhymes lie behind many of the combinations made in his paintings, even if he discovers them only when analysing afterwards what he has done. Interestingly, this can apply – for the form of its letters as much as their meaning – to the text which has recently reappeared in his paintings, as well as to images. Moon himself gives a fascinating account of how ‘A / X’ developed:
‘For a long time I had been thinking about making a painting that related to Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. I wasn’t sure why but had a feeling that it had something to do with wanting to paint a cliché, to purposely make a painting that was already flawed through overuse and popularity. And to make it even kitschier, I had intended to replace the flower heads with children’s heads. A truly awful idea, but that was why I wanted to do it. Nevertheless, anxiety over how such a picture would be received resulted in the idea being shelved indefinitely. But without my truly being aware of it the idea still tormented me, as I discovered when I made a drawing of a skyscraper that I wanted to make a painting of with huge megaphone horns coming out of the top of the building. The painting itself never materialized, but after having made the drawing I was fascinated to discover that I had in fact made a visual pun on the sunflowers idea. The shapes all corresponded so perfectly that I was in no doubt that this was what I had in fact created. Finally a painting did emerge called A/X that again mirrored the shapes of the original idea, yet at the time of making it I was in ignorance to its relationship to the previous two images. So in fact, though it might not immediately seem apparent, the painting A/X has a direct reference to Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.
I suppose this is why when I was initially working on the idea I was driven by instinct to include the letters A and X on either side of the windmill. Again I wasn’t aware of it at the time (as at that stage I wasn’t aware that I was working from the sunflowers idea), but after having discovered it’s relationship to the previous concept the additional letters corresponded to the flowers that would have appeared on either side of the stem. This much was clear, but then why especially did I want to use the letters A and X? There was some reason why it had to be those letters and not any others, and when I began to think about it the answer to that question became clear. Just as the overall composition rhymed plastically with the sunflowers idea and the skyscraper, the letters A and X contain shapes that themselves are mirrored in the rest of the image. The letter A can clearly be seen in the shape of the windmill on stilts, and X’s are seen all over the image, from the obvious X in the sails of the windmill to the many X’s seen underneath the platform on which the windmill rests’.
Where whole words are used, there is the potential for both visual rhyme between the letter forms and the image (in ‘Kink’ the letters imitate the boy’s clothing) and associations between a word’s meanings and what the painting depicts. Moon himself provides a full account of how that works in ‘Kink’, saying that all its definitions ‘could be valid in some way or another with connection to the image’. He lists those as (1) A slight twist or coil in an otherwise straight section of something such as a rope. (2) A slight difficulty or hold up in the progress of something. (3) A sudden spasm in a muscle, especially a crick in the neck. (4) Something that is eccentric or peculiar in somebody’s personality or behaviour. (5) A quirky, odd idea or impulse. (6) An unusual sexual practice, especially one that might be considered deviant. Moon goes on to say:
‘The fact that we don’t know exactly what is occurring in the image leads one to any number of different readings of the work. The tube in the painting might draw one to the conclusion that something is wrong with the apparatus – that there is a kink in the tube, which in turn leads one to the second dictionary definition of the word. Ambiguity as to whether the boy is being forcibly held down or whether it is an experiment that he himself is conducting adheres to the third, fourth and fifth definitions, and yet it is the sixth definition, that of kink as in ‘kinky’ that I believe the largest proportion of the audience would read from the image and word together. This was certainly not intentional, and I believe that it says more about society’s obsession with sex than it does about the image itself, which was sourced from a magazine article on medical practice in the 1950’s, and contained no reference to sexual practice whatsoever’.
Overall, then, the repetition of shapes and suggestions of meanings – both visual and semantic - changes the meanings of what Moon depicts, and heightens the ambiguity of the images.
Someone coming fresh to one of Moon’s paintings is unlikely to pick up on all the combinations of time nor all the plastic rhymes which Moon himself locates in them. However, their presence does help to explain what creates the peculiar atmosphere of his work, and also give viewers ample scope to bring their own associations to bear. Those two aspects of Moon’s paintings, moreover, work effectively together within individual paintings, setting off complementary associations which might be characterised as chronological and formal. They amount, to invent a term, to Moon’s particular vision of plastic time.
Jacques Villeglé: Trajectoire Urbaine @ Alexia Goethe Gallery, London
11 Feb – 25 March 2011
Since 1949, the veteran French artist Jacques Villeglé has made ‘décollages’ (‘un-stickings’) in which he takes layered street posters, already partly torn away and sometimes defaced by passers by, and rips off further pieces before re-presenting them as art. He has outlived fellow practioners Raymond Hains, Mimmo Rotella and Francois Dufrene, and this lively show featured a dozen relatively recent examples. That meant all were new to London, where Villeglé has shown rarely, but there was little sense of the variety his work has generated by reflecting its times: language fragmented into abstraction in the 1950’s; more figurative deconstruction of adverts in proto-pop style in the early 60’s; an increasingly political edge in the late 60’s to 70’s; and a ‘decentralisation’ away from Paris from the 1990’s onwards, as tough regulation of poster advertising restricted his opportunities in the capital.
This then, was essentially a non-Parisian show, and – political media having largely left the world’s streets – adverts for rock concerts loomed large. They suit the sense of voices vying for attention in the cacophony of different layers. Villeglé has spoken of his excitement as he tears away strips to see what lies beneath, and that sense of discovery keeps the work fresh. Its conceptual richness derives from two main sources: first, the scope for surreal conjunctions, puns and visual echoes between posters; second, the way in which the community of the city takes part in the production. Those underpinnings have enabled the work to remain open to contemporary interpretation: thus the décollages may now be seen to prefigure both the entry of graffiti painting into gallery systems and the trend towards building social interaction into works of art.
The show also included spry profiles of the artist made out of the posters which have defined him; and graphical work drawn from modifications of graffiti lettering. Villeglé began these ‘socio-political alphabets’ in the 1970’s, and turned to them more fully as his age made it too physically demanding to handle stacks of posters – but they remained subsidiary in the presence of the ‘lacerated anonymous’.
Henk Peeters: Work from the 1960’s @ Mayor Gallery, London: 12 Jan – 25 Feb 2011
This attractive and historically interesting show presented a dozen works on canvas by Henk Peeters. He was – and remains – the most active member of the Dutch group Nul (formally constituted only from1962-65), the name of which signaled an affiliation with the Düsseldorf-based Zero group, which in turn shared approaches with the Nouveau Realists in France and minimalists in the USA. The exhibited works were simple abstracts and nearly all white, which brought Manzoni’s ‘Achromes’ to mind. All of that may make Nul sound like a backwater, but the exhibition felt far from stagnant or insignificant.
Peeters, like those peers, reacted against the expressionist and existentialist trends of the 1950’s by aiming to show reality as art, using everyday and typically modern materials in such a way that the viewer related to their particular qualities, with the prevalence of white emphasising the effects of light and shadow. That said, Peeters doesn’t present his materials wholly straight: they may be distanced, semi-hidden, orchestrated, or altered. His take on pyrography for example, sees him scorch plastic in grid patterns which feel more aesthetically measured than Burri, Piene and Klein’s contemporaneous burnings; while in the surprisingly beautiful ‘Two Strips of Cotton Wool’, that humble material is presented behind mesh and bleeds at the edges in a manner reminiscent, a little ironically, of Rothko.
Such materials don’t necessarily age well, but this selection was in pristine condition. That arises from Peeters’ decision to restore his work on an ongoing basis: he always wanted his materials to look as if they had just been bought from a shop, and evidently sees that as more important then the mere physical continuity of original substances. Here three delicate feather works, one moving mechanically, two just trembling courtesy of a well-placed ventilation unit, benefitted particularly from that philosophy.
Peeters is not especially well-known outside continental Europe, but this show suggested that his combination of sensitivity and rigour will continue to find new followers.
Terry Rodgers: The Fluid Geometries of Illusion @ Torch, Amsterdam: April-May 2011
This fourth Amsterdam solo show for the American artist Terry Rodgers included five of his big, lush trademark paintings of theatrically hedonistic groups in dishabille alongside drawings and a wide range of works in recently adopted media including videos, light-box constructions, digital collages, and photography.
Rodgers’s paintings have changed little in the last decade: complex groupings of attractive young people, more decorated than dressed, in nightclub settings luxurious beyond cliché. As viewer-voyeurs we’re drawn in but kept at a distance. The figures are united by detailed yet curvaceously rhythmic paintwork and by intricately intersecting compositions, yet avoid eye contact with one another. They seem bored, possibly arrogant, and isolated. Indeed, the models are unaware of each other, as they are drawn and photographed separately by Rodgers before being digitally combined to form the basis for the paintings.
Perhaps, then, it’s natural that the artist’s videos portray solitary subjects smoking, drinking, and lounging around, emphasizing the continuity between the vacancy of their individual and communal modes of being. His drawings are loose dances around the poses of his models, far removed from the surface realism of the paintings. Consequently, there’s a sharp contrast when such drawings are digitally superimposed onto photographs of typical Rodgers content, as in the collages and light-box constructions, so that the freedom of the line emphasizes that the freedom of the subjects may be an illusion.
Rodgers project as a whole still stands or falls by his paintings. Are they voyeuristic titillation in the guise of art or a cunning exploitation of kitsch and fantasy to expose the emptiness of excess? Rodgers has said he aims “to touch the most essential problem of our society: the inability to get in touch with each other." Yet the engaging provocation remains: should he be linked to Hefner and Guccione; or to Picabia and Koons?
This show brings together two naturally collaborative counter-cultural figures with records of provocation in London, Berlin and New York: painter, writer and curator Rupert Goldsworthy and sound artist Mark Stewart, known as a collagist and pioneer of industrial hip hop.
‘I AM THE LAW’ is a total installation in two rooms: Stewart’s scrawled texts, some of them seeming to annotate various symbols which Goldsworthy monoprinted onto wallpaper-like hangings; a cuboid structure painted in Islamic-style patterning; two wall paintings, one of which Goldsworthy made at the opening; several grids of found images and texts linked by such themes as devil-worship, bathhouse logos and sub-cultures; and some items of Stewart’s which looked to have been left scattered after a ritual rather than arranged - from signs promoting ‘GOD’ as a trademark to records and personal items. At first the look of the show seems mainly down to Goldsworthy, but Stewart is more than a catalyst and means of adding another layer to the pile-up of references, as the words are all his and he helped pick the two images that Goldsworthy then rendered as large murals.
So what does it all mean? If one theme holds things together, it’s probably Goldsworthy’s interest in the way symbols operate to represent what might be called ‘radical brands’ in a broad sense – from the Hells Angels to Islam to the National Front. It’s obvious that both men are fascinated by a wide range of objects, expressions and designs, not excluding the criminal, fascist and otherwise unsavoury, and some of the show’s energy comes from their investigation into how these signs and logos clash together. That leads Goldsworthy to collect labels and stickers and take photographs of signs and monuments, combining them to emphasise the co-existence of opposing cultures in the same space: Prussian military history with new Moslem designs from Berlin, for example... Similarly, Stewart's dystopian texts, hacked collages and ritual objects juxtapose charged subject matter: pentagrams and prison gates.
Such matters are explored more fully in Goldsworthy’s recently published “CONSUMING//TERROR: Images of the Baader-Meinhof”, a book on which he worked closely with Stewart, and which traces the visual history of the Red Army Faction (the West German terror group) and their logo. One of the main themes of the book is, Goldsworthy says, to ask how ‘outlaw’ or terrorist signs ‘establish themselves and operate as a heretical category amid a closely administered, legitimated, forest of signs’. This was the focus of his solo show at Ritter/Zamet last year, which featured large paintings combining incongruous categories – Nazi, gay and Chinese, for example.
Goldsworthy, then, focuses on the associative power of representation and how identities of "the forbidden" are constructed. Indeed, the symbols of seventies radicalism have much the same look as their racist counterparts, and the crude agitprop style of many of the underlying designs was emphasised by Stewart leaving behind a rudimentary hand-made printing block which was used to make the wallpaper works. One effect of this is to play on the semiotic point that word and object are not linked by logic but by convention, posing the question: are the linkages just as arbitrary in the world of visual signs? Here’s where I feel a connection to Stewart’s words, which give the impression of being plucked at random for their sound and emotional effect, rather than for any conventional narrative purpose: thus do ‘frozen angels’, ‘cluster fuck of visions’, and ‘institutional deviance’ swim out the dense melange of his sheets of lyrics.
Elsewhere, two slogan-like phrases are particularly prominent: Stewart’s song title ‘As the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade’, as written across a painting of two menacingly carnivalesque figures appropriated by Goldsworthy; and ‘Obedience to the Law is Freedom’ on a sign across the top of a fenced-in prison on one of the wall paintings. That brings to mind both the Auschwitz slogan ‘Work Sets You Free’ and the use of language in Orwell’s ‘1984’. It’s power, not reality, which decides what words and images mean – though on the other hand, if ‘I am the Law’, as the show’s title would have it, then the obedience could be rendered benign through being founded on such subjectivity. The show turns around language's role in the construction of power.
Visually, the most effective work was the second wall painting. It shows a rioting crowd, sourced from a photograph taken during the Irish civil war: another context in which belief may be thought to have trumped truth in the construction of meaning, and also drawing ambivalent associations with recent events in London and the Arab world. Goldsworthy combines a peculiar dark–green-over-lemon palette with astutely vague brushwork so that what is depicted seems out of register in the manner of a 3D photograph viewed with the naked eye. This makes the dense rear section of the crowd look like a dappled landscape until one reads back to it from the individual figures in the foreground, who’ve broken free. They feel like reasonable stand-ins for Goldsworthy and Stewart themselves, separating out long enough to provide a sense of how we’re manipulated before being reabsorbed into the protesting mass.
The exhibition ‘I AM THE LAW’ runs until March 31st, when a closing party will double as a release event for Stewart's forthcoming album ‘The Politics of Envy.’