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 jamboree 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
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 California and Arizonia 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’).
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
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 Eggleston, 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 subjects (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 trees 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.
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