Thursday, 30 April 2015


Quite simply, reviews of four interesting books...

Cornelia Parker  by Cornelia Parker and Iwona Blazwick

Thames & Hudson, 2014, £24.95
Paperback, 256pp, 360 Illustrations, 315 in colour

Cornelia Parker, Transitional Object II, 1996 - Net, hooks, thread and bags of lead

Cornelia Parker has developed something of a niche as a conceptual artist enjoyed by a wide public. Three questions might asked of this substantial survey of her 40 year career to date. Does it present her work successfully? Does it engage with it critically? And, when looked at as a whole, what conclusion does it lead to on her overall importance?
The first question is easy to answer. This is a superbly designed book. Following introductions by Yoko Ono and Bruce Ferguson, there are 360 excellent illustrations, most of which come with extensive captions by Parker herself.  It’s like being at an artist’s slide talk, and Parker is highly engaging as she explains her work with a mixture of autobiographical reminiscence and unpretentious accounts of her aims. We hear about her Anglo-German background; her early involvement with experimental theatre; how she found her artistic voice in the communal atmosphere of a Leytonstone squat in the 1980s; the appealingly self-sufficient and non-commercial attitude which meant she had no gallery representation until 1997. Moreover, we get to see and hear about ephemeral or rarely-seen work such a schoolhouse completely drawn-over in chalk; the artist throwing ‘words which define gravity’ off the cliffs of Dover; and the mournful black tents which followed the death of her parents. Parker’s commentaries are interspersed with five essays by Whitechapel director Iwona Blazwick which pull together common themes in an equally accessible way. This varies the pace, and makes for a good balance. 

 How strong is the critical engagement? Blazwick’s categorisations are useful: she discusses the found object; the performative aspect in Parker’s work - most visible in her use of Tilda Swinton as a sleeping sculpture (‘The Maybe’, 1995); how Parker abstracts from the normal use of objects, such as by zooming in on microscopic details or drawing a wedding ring out into wire; her use of scientific knowledge; and the role of power structures. Blazwick points out that Parker is notably good at persuading people and institutions – Army, Church and State – to collaborate in surprising  ways, and summarises her as ‘fundamentally a sculptor who marshals epistemology and polemics with an overarching and exceptional aesthetic’. That ability to combine the practical, phenomenological and philosophical does characterise her best work, but overall – as may be the aim -  Blazwick point outs patterns rather than evaluating merits. 

'Room for Margins, 1998: from ‘Venetian Scene’ circa 1840-5, JMW Turner, N05482,1998
That leads to the obvious third question: how good is the work? Much of it plays on the modern tradition of the ‘found object’, which Parker takes in two particular and original directions. First, she trades on the aura of their pre-history: that’s not just any feather, but one which was present in Freud’s consulting couch; that photograph was taken with Rudolf Hess’s camera; that fly died on a Donald Judd sculpture. Second, the object becomes just one of many unstable points in its own history, which may range from the formative (as in her wittily menacing ‘Embryo Guns’) to the ghostly afterlife of an object steamrollered, thrown from heights, shot or burned. One particularly elegant transformative move was to show the canvas liners which backed some Turner paintings as found abstracts, then return them to the Tate’s collection to be reclassified as her own work.

Pornographic Drawing (1996) Ferric oxide on paper
All of this comes across optimally in this book. That said, those tropes can turn conceptualism into a fairly light game, close at times to autograph hunting. The key, I think, is whether the nature of the investigation chimes with the form taken by the work, and how successfully it taps into broader concerns. Neither the grids made from wire drawn out of bullets, for example, nor ‘Stolen Thunder’(1997-98), a series of rubbings resulting from polishing the tarnish from famous people’s artefacts, amount to much beyond their origins; whereas the beautiful ‘Pornographic Drawings’ (1996-2005), which used ink made from videotapes chopped up by Customs & Excise, form Rorschach blots which pick up on the psychology involved in understanding the tastes of others, and also prove, as Parker says, ‘particularly explicit, betraying their figurative origins’. It’s the same with the more substantial works: where resonant origins and an appropriate and distinctive aesthetic combine to tap into what may be our collective unconscious, the results are plangently memorable.  The blown-up shed with its shadow play out of terrorism (‘Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View’,1991); the squashing and squeezing the breathe from old instruments (e.g. ‘Perpetual Canon’, 1994); and the suspensions of charred churches with racially contrasting congregations and causes of burning – ‘Mass (Colder Darker Matter)’, 1997 and ‘Anti-Mass’, 2005 – all meet that demanding set of conditions. They also utilise what might be seen as Parker’s signature moves: luring the viewer into seduction by violence, and suspending objects tremulously on hardly-visible wires.

Parker has, then, made a wide range of always-diverting works and a number of reverberant classics. It’s more than most achieve, and well worth this fine record… and worthy, too, of the extensive retrospective which makes Parker the biggest artistic presence in the jamoboree of shows which the newly reopened Whitworth Gallery has been able to fit into its extended space in Manchester.

PRIVATE - Mona Kuhn

Text by David Campany, 112 pages, 74 color plates
29.7 x 31 cm, Clothbound hardcover with dust-jacket
Published by Steidl, 2014, £38

Available from the Flowers Gallery, which represents Mona Kuhn in the UK

Private (cover)

Mona Kuhn was born in São Paulo of German descent, and lives in Los Angeles. She’s known for relaxed, intimate nudes and meditatively spacious landscapes infused which vary width of apertures, depth of field and degree of focus to suggest the fleeting nature of perception. This, her 6th photo book, is a tour de force which covers those bases and more. The title is actually in mirror writing, being derived from a photograph of the back of a glass door. It suggests, then, that we are in a place of privileged access. What is that place?  Not some celebrity’s world uncovered, but the stilled gracefulness and blurred implications of Kuhn’s distinctive aesthetic, handsomely presented in a 31 x 30cm format. It’s the result of two years’ travel in the Californian and Arizonian desert, described by Kuhn as ‘a personal journey, weaving together the desert’s beauty with its brutal sense of mortality’. Another implication of that reverse word title is that Kuhn is inside the human condition, looking out – to see the desert as a metaphor. Or as David Campany has it in his accompanying text: ‘the desert’s seductive threat is always there of course. It menaces from the edges.… The sun is coming to devour everything and take the mystery with it’.

That text aside, the book consists of the 74 images, the pointers of their individual titles, and the flow and implied narrative of the sequence. On a picture by picture basis, Kuhn sets off little transformations, detonated by her titles: trees read as smoke, their shadows as ‘Antler’; a rock is seen to ‘Howl’; a flag seems sadly alone, an interior with wallpaper stands for the ocean floor. People drift through with resonant names: Jet, Blu, Gigi and Daisy. That last is the title given to the image of a woman who may be so named, but is covered by a lace-like pattern of flower shadows which may also be the eponymous reference. Light, shadows, and refraction are recurrent, and they combine with the desert trope of the mirage to feed into intricate fragmentation of figures. When light is absent, it seems willed and unnatural. ‘Most homes I have been inside had their curtains closed’, says Kuhn, ‘people get tired of the heat, you start feeling the weight of light, it becomes heavy… Some of the desert people I met prefer to live in darkness’. The landscape and its people are dominant, but are also still lives and several beautiful photographs which act as abstractions (e.g. ‘Mesa’, ‘Patina’ and ‘Outside Winslow’).
Composition 1

The book’s most obvious movement is through light and colour. It opens with  ‘Stain’ which evokes a Chinese landscape drawing, but actually shows wallpaper sullied by water, and so somewhat ironically tees up the move to a desert landscape. It also initiates an undercurrent of menace, picked up directly in, for example, ‘Black Widow’ (in which the spider is tattooed on a hand shown up close), spider webs, a zoom in on a scarred torso, and a gecko ‘Contained’ within an architectural framing. Consistent use of the golden brown of a well-tanned skin links bodies with landscapes, interiors and geometries. Half-way through, dusk falls and we move into dun browns, the sun absent save for its effects (‘Sun Rot’ shows the inside of a window covered against the sun, which has atrophied the protective layer).   We pass into morning, to find Blu coming round from sleep and Sibyl – be that name or role – sitting poised, grey-haired, naked, and tattooed with foliage. Indeed, the only verdant vegetation in the book is on her, or on wallpaper - until the last image: we end with bouquets of roses, the book’s brightest colour note, and yet pastel and muted for all that. 


A People on the Cover - Glenn Ligon

Ridinghouse 2015 £15.95 
Softback  24 × 17 cm 
144 pp, Design by Joseph Logan

Glenn Ligon has had a significant British presence of late: major solo shows at Thomas Dane and the Camden Arts Centre in 2014, and now a wide ranging curation of the artist who matter to him, at Nottingham contemporary ('Encounters and Collisions', 3 April - 14 June. This unusual book shine the light on some of the background of an artist who identifies himself strongly as black and gay.

Essentially it presents a view of how black Americans were seen and saw themselves through the medium of the book cover - which is to say photographs of covers - during Ligon's own formative period of 1960-78. Such covers are, logically enough, well-suited to the book sized presentation, and the result is handsome. Ligon arranges his choices thematically, starting with portrait covers showing how, as he puts it 'with the rise of the civil rights black power movements, beauty was seen as an arena in which  the battle for equality could be fought’. We see, for example, LeRoi Jones, Gill Scott-Heron, Toni Morrison and James Baldwin – a particular touchstone for Ligon. The book goes on to consider synecdochal images - shots of parts of the body showing how in Stuart Hall's words, it was used "as if it was, and it often was, only cultural capital we had'. Then come images of assertion and revolution incorporating Malcom X, Chester Himes and Dick Gregory; and graphic cover styles which Ligon links to his own powerful use of words in his art. The trenchant red on black lettering on the cover of The Fire Next Time is what first attracted him to Baldwin. Finally,Ligon looks at how writers set themselves the task of imagining the narratives of African American history in new ways.

The result is an evocative visual history, but also a very personal one. Ligon opens with a memoir of boyhood explaining the role played by books in forming is self-identity, and points to the particular importance of the covers to him, as he was typically ordering by post from catalogues absence of well-stocked bookshops in his Harlem neighbourhood.  A People on the Cover is a quick read: one could say it is not too substantial, but it is refreshingly original and  beautifully pitched.


Purtroppo Ti Amo: Federico Pacini

Editrice Quinlan, 2013, €32

There are three ways of looking at Italian photographer Federico Pacini’s impressively produced  Purtroppo Ti Amo  (Unfortunately I Love You): as a collection of individual photographs brought together to advantage, as 58 diptychs of two photographs in (almost exclusively) landscape format, or as one work made up of 116 photographs. The first view certainly yields some strong and unconventional images. One could say, though, that they seem to borrow the tropes of various others: William Egglestone, Stephen Shore and Luigi Ghirri come to mind. 


It’s the dual view which brings Pacini into his element. Each double page spread makes connections between the two images, whether that be through paired subects (two photographs with bus stops, chairs, windows…), a visual match (often of shapes; or where clothes on one side pick  up the colour combination of a car opposite; or the raised sodium of a streetlight among trees and metal structures reflects the raised orange of a tarpaulin  with tress and very different metal structures) or a conceptual one (the sign ‘Blades’ paired with the graffiti ‘Hate’; a medieval drapery set against a modern tarpaulin, Jesus implicitly compared with coca cola). 

That might make it a book of paired photos, but themes also connect between the diptychs. Pacini was born (in 1977) and lives in Sienna and most of what we’re shown is the Sienna the tourists don’t see (or at least don’t take in and remember): vending machines, waiting rooms, patches of wasteland, parked cars, suburbia, glimpses behind the scenes of small businesses. When we do see the expected cathedral, Piazza del Campo and the Palio horse race which takes place there, it’s only indirectly (reflected in a shop window, or as a model) or second hand (seen in a poster or photograph shown in an interior) and is often out of season and distorted. As, not surprisingly, religious references also course through the portrait of this decidedly Catholic town, it’s possible to think that the air of a place not quite at its peak contains a suggestion that that side of life is a hangover past its time. That’s why, perhaps, it’s unfortunate that what Pacini loves is in decline.



Saturday 26 April 2015 proved an interesting one as there was an unusual variety of art events on in London:

Carlos Jacanamijoy: Nacido en el fuego, 2008-13, oil on canvas, 200x124cm  Born in Fire 
First I visited Sandra Higgins in the Kensington flat she uses as a gallery (open by appointment) to carry forward her campaign to achieve recognition for artists discovered on her regular trips to Colombia. Carlos Jacanamijoy (those ‘j’s are pronounced as ‘h’s) is famous enough in Bogotá to be widely recognised in the street. One of only 4% - a persecuted minority -  who are of native blood, Jacanamijoy is the son of a shaman, but also trained in the traditions of western painting. Exploiting that unusual combination, he reflects the jungle and his Inga heritage through burningly bright abstracted numinous places in which a range of personal symbols of his own devising refer to such matters as social relations, the local fauna, and the hallucinogenic drugs experiences caused by the psychotropic yajé vine in tribal ceremonies. He deserves a higher European profile.

Extracts from Jacanamijoy's list of symbols

To the London Original Print Fair at the Royal Academy, which alternated old and new to somewhat dizzying effect, but contained a fair proportion of good material as well as such counter-titular absurdities as Eric Ravilious prints made in 2014. Three – oddly enough all abstract - works which caught my eye more positively were:

Emperor Twist, 2015 Woodblock 64.5 × 64.5 cm, Edition of 35
Pennsylvania-based Durham Press’s Brand new Polly Apfelbaum woodprints, dizzyingly heraldic grids made from scores of individual diamond blocks, which take their zingy inspiration from the mosaics she saw during a one year residency in Rome. It's no surprise that colour takes a central role, though the American artist is best known for using it on less orthodox bases than paper.

 Richard Diebenkorn: Untitled (1971–76) watercolour at Emanuel von Baeyer
The Richard Diebenkorn survey is still in the Sackler Rooms above the Print Fair, as I was reminded by this typical late work on paper: not a study for the Ocean Park series – Diebenkorn never worked from sketches – but an exploration of the same structures in a different way, and like the paintings in demonstrating its hesitations and uncertainties as the artist seeks to make it work. Not, though, particularly cheap at £300,000.

Howard Hodgkin: Autumn, 2014 at Alan Cristea - Carborundum relief on Moulin du Gue 350gsm paper 26.5 × 32.5 cm Edition of 30

I don’t claim to be a devotee of Howard Hodgkin’s mainstream output, and have had enough of his false framing device. But I was drawn to the lighter and more open composition of his recent near-floral carbondarum prints. The oriental echoes are no surprise, but I was reminded of a recent conversation in which I’d been assured that the Japanese cherry blossom season is no better than the English one, just better celebrated.

Jonathan Trayte: The Shopper's Guide at the Royal Academy of Arts
The Dazed and Confused emerging artists award round the back of the Royal Academy is well worth catching. Five finalists were selected from 1,700 entries, and given that they received only £1000 each, their whole room installations are immensely impressive. That shows the energy of the artists - who had to be under 35, not in education and not represented by a gallery – not just in making work but in obtaining additional sponsorship. Lawrence Lek's striking animation, in which  the viewer takes the controls of a helicopter hovering over the the Royal Academy reimagined as a luxury housing development, is a worthy winner, but the judges choice must have been difficult and there's plenty to be said for two critiques of consumerism: Rachel Pimm turns the rubber industry into a version of ‘the way things go’, and Jonathan Trayte's 'Shopper's Guide' is an astounding compendium of bronze and ceramic – but not, I think, rubber – food: what’s the use / value assessment of that?

The Other Art Fair in Bloomsbury gives 130 unrepresented artists the chance to present their own work, independent of the gallery system. Gavin Turk guested entertainingly, and Alan Rankle, painter of corroded landscapes, was by a distance the most established (and expensive) artist to take part in the orthodox manner. A handful of others grabbed my attention: Lanee Bladbjerg, Barbara Nati, xxxx and the following three – all representational this time in the face of quite a lot of over-generic abstraction as well as plenty of dire figuration:

Delphine Lebourgeois: The Swimming Cap, 2014 Giclée Print with hand-painted cap 67x41cm

The spirit of Cananda’s Royal Art Lodge (Marcel Dzama et al) seems to coarse through the hauntingly precise scenarios of Delphine Lebourgeois. She’s as French as she sounds but has lived in London for a decade. Women with guns provide her favourite means of playing with power relations, and also between illustrative and fine art traditions...

 Anastasiya Lazurenko from Pearly Gates, 2011-15

Russian photographer Anastasiya Lazurenko has a naturally contrary, convincing casual style which reminded me of Boris Michhailov, and like him she records the weird characters around her with an attractive lack of judgment to make us see them differently through her. She included a sequnce dedicated to a 'charismatic fairy alien' who died of anorexia under the sex / drug / heaven title 'Pearly Gates'

Rui Matsunago: Play Two Frog, acrylic and oil on board - 2012 15 x 9.5 cm

Rui Matsunago’s small paintings are skewed versions of Japanese fairy tales which channel an entertaining animalism against gold backgrounds which set up unusual colour relationships. Frogs, representing the Rain Spirit, are particularly charaterful: these two seem to be making a dark cloud which promises plentiful precipitate - or is it paradoxical smoke? 

Gallery Day organiser Domo Baal opens her coal cellar for the occasion, this year featuring Mhairi Vari's installation

London Gallery Day, which extends opening hours in an area centred on EC1 for the whole weekend, sets out to provide a handy means of visiting 22 listed galleries. It's thoroghly recommended, though not perfect: I’d already seen three of the shows, but found three of the others were closed, and failed to get to four of the remaining 16 in the time available.  The standard is high including Emma Talbot at DomoBaal, Kate Terry at Dalla Rosa, Salvatore Arancio at the Contemporary Art Society, Maria Zhale at Arcade, Elizabeth Gossling at Tintype and Los Carpinteros at Parasol Unit as well as these three shows:  

 The Symptom of Art at Cabinet

Cabinet have found a particularly persuasive framework in which to showcase their holding of 60% of the life-sized figural tableaux made by Pierre Klossowski (1905-2001), who's better known for the drawings after which they're made. True, that’s to say only three out of five, though he’d been planning on fifteen had he lived longer. Anyway, the curious scenes which filled the imagination of Balthus’ brother have been categorised as ‘Pere-versions’ by psychoanalyst Dr Scott Von, and his several diagramatic representations of why – as shown alongside the sculptures -  make suggestive sense.

Johanna Billing: Pulheim Jam Session  at Hollybush Gardens 

Swedish artist Johanna Billing has made a traffic jam soothing and entertaining. The citizens of Pullheim, an artificial city made up of twelve villages near Cologne which were administratively united in 1975, are shown to be pretty chilled out when caught in a tailback, contentedly eating, playing games and chatting. They do so against a surprisingly rural background, and to the sound of another kind of jam - the jazz piano of Keith Jarret at Cologne, also in 1975, as revisited here by the Swedish musician Edda Magnason. You won’t have had a more positive traffic jam experience! I mentioned this to some cynical Berliners I met later, and they thought it typical of the Rhinelanders to be unjustifiably upbeat. 

  Tal R: Blinds, 2014-15 at Victoria Miro, Wharf Road
Tal R found fame as a painter, but his decidedly original show Chimney School of Sculpture at Victoria Miro uses four sculptural elements. Downstairs are cheerfully colourful geometrically patterned chimneys made – rather impractically – of fabric; bronze and clay forms, most providing a glazed take on the Chinese tradition of the scholar’s rock; and , and bespoke sofas of some chromatic magnificence from which visitors are encouraged to contemplate the room. Upstairs a corridor has been constructed to run through the space, pointlessly apart from its containing an impressive variety of paintings and lightboxes all depicting  closed pull-blinds, one image denying implied others.

Sonia Delaunay: Bal Bullier, 1913 at Tate Modern

Tate Modern is open late every Saturday: a good time to go, even if I’m a little puzzled by the overwhelmingly positive critical response to Sonia Delaunay's huge retrospective. True, it's enjoyable, and we shouldn’t dismiss the bulk of her work – as used to happen – because it’s spread across clothing and design rather than the painting in which she had her primary moment in 1910-14. I like this transitional painting of almost-abstarct tango dancers. But does her career as a whole really have the depth and meaningful development to make her a major figure?

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, Frieze, Photomonitor, Elephant and Border Crossings. I have curated 20 shows during 2013-17 with more on the way. Going back a bit my main writing background is poetry. My day job is public sector financial management.