Sunday, 29 December 2019


I write for the excellent and visually punchy magazine ELEPHANT . Each issue had a principal theme.

You can see material from my themed picture essays below, uploaded for each issue when the next one comes out in hard copy - but including some unpublished material, as you always need the odd reserve for such items.

These are so far, in reverse order of publication as below: 

AGE in Issue 42 

ENVIRONMENT in Issue 41 

SELF-CARE in Issue 40

FOOD in Issue 39

MASCULINITY in Issue 38 

BIRTH in Issue 37

LUXURY in Issue 36

ANGST in issue 35 

SEX in Issue 34  

COMEDY in Issue 33 


Who’ll Care if You Don’t?
There’s no shortage of advice on the keys to good self-care. My choices touch on the following, which a surfing session showed to be popular online: stay balanced (Shana Moulton); get a good night’s sleep (Paul Maria Schneggenburger); spend time outdoors (Juergen Teller); eat well for your body and the planet (Chloe Wise); consider the benefits of having a pet (Martin Eder)  and, in all that, understand yourself (Nell Sully). Art itself might be a helpful component of self-care. But is it a mental activity and source of stimulation that improves life balance and reduces the chances of dementia, or an obsessive activity which tortures its creators with a fear of failure? I’m not sure we can expect the artists themselves to answer that question, but Clare Price has found a way for her practice to assist. 

Shana MoultonEvery Angle is an Angel, 2016

Still from high-definition digital video, 6:19 min.
Edition of 3+2AP

Courtesy the artist, Galerie Gregor Staiger, Zurich & Galerie Crèvecoeur, Paris

Shana Moulton admits that there is much of herself in her videos’ surreal character of Cynthia, an anxious, isolated hypochondriac keen to try any therapeutic product which combines self-medication with new age spirituality. ‘It’s me as if I’m a bit more naïve’, says Moulton, seen here as Cynthia with various devices in a still from a recent instalment of her comical search for healthy self-fulfilment. She’s forever knocked back by mundane reality, and Moulton’s deliberately kooky use of editing technology seems to be in on the act. Self-care is good, yes, but don’t get obsessed… 

Paul Maria SchneggenburgerThe Sleep of the Beloved No. 63, 2010

Archival pigment print, 65 x 80 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Johannes Faber, Vienna

How much sleep should you have? That’s a topic of much advice. But is the quality of sleep – as well as the potential for other healthy intimacies - better if you share your bed? The go-to artist for that question might be the Austrian photographer Paul Maria Schneggenburger. He has a bed in his studio, where he has made 120 photographs to date of lovers and families overnight, capturing the dance of their mutual rest with a single six-hour exposure lit only by candlelight. The series is ongoing - indeed, you can take part by contacting him at

Juergen TellerKanye, Juergen & Kim, No.33, Chateau d’Ambleville 2015

© Juergen Teller, All rights Reserved, Courtesy Alison Jacques Gallery

Much of the Kardashian brand is about self-care of one sort or another, and marketing its ramifications for make-up, diet and lifestyle. The benefits of fresh air in the countryside are not what springs to mind among her endorsements, but that’s what Juergen Teller captured in his typically madcap shots taken in France, achieving the impressive feat of showing the mega-photographed couple afresh. Here Kim demonstrates how to let plenty of fresh air reach the body while ensuring that long socks protect against prickles and stings...

Chloe WiseGluten Freedom, 2017
Oil on Canvas, 183 x 152 cm | 72 x 60 inches. 
Courtesy the Artist and Almine Rech. Photo: Rebecca Fanuele

Diet is at the heart of self-care, and there seems to be an ever-expanding range of factors to take into account. Young New York based Canadian Chloe Wise catches something of that in paintings in which women display food and drink against an idealised Alpine background. The question here might be: are the non-dairy alternatives to milk (which feature throughout the series) actually better – for us and the planet – than the traditional products to which the background alludes, or is that just an advertising line? Less methane from cows farting, in the case of soya milk for example, but more deforestation to grow the crops. Aside from that, Wise gets to show off her ability to paint both varied still life textures and up-to-the-minute character studies.

Martin EderThe Inescapable Unity of Love, 2010/18
Oil on canvas, 285 cm x 380 cm

Courtesy Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin
Photo: Uwe Walter

Pets are widely seen as beneficial for mental health and - in the case of dogs – physical health, too, as they encourage exercise. Likewise, practical interests like playing an instrument. Here German painter Martin Eder takes the former to excess and adds the latter as a bonus. Indeed, one might wonder whether it’s the ridiculous and walk-problematising scale of the pooch which triggers the need for a diversionary tune. Typically with Eder, a ludicrous subject triggers luridly bravura painting as he satirises through exaggeration such trends as the fashionable lapdog.
Nell SullySelf preservation instinct shape no 2, 2019
Ink drawing:   21 x  21 cm
Courtesy the artist
A pre-requisite of optimal self-care is self-understanding. Nell Sully has made a series of drawings that focus on the three main instincts identified in the Enneagram, a widely-used framework for distinguishing personality types. Sully believes, in accordance with the associated teachings, that ‘to become ‘well’ we need to understand our instinctual energy drive, how we hold it and how to shift it’. Moreover, she is convinced that there is geometric form to these emotional energies. Hence this drawing, which imagines a structural shape which might, in her words, ‘twist / avoid / shake off anything that threatens’. A lively abstract drawing becomes the potential starting point for a theoretically grounded discussion of self-care.
Clare PriceUntitled 

(#ithinkthatmaybethesephotoshavehelpedmetohealfromalotofstuff), 2019.

Photograph with oil on canvas painting, courtesy the artist.

It is important to ‘say yes’ to your own self-care, recognising it as a priority. Perhaps art can contribute. Clare Price makes rapid gestural paintings scaled to her body, and often adds to their performative aspect by photographing herself remotely as she strikes dance-like poses in front of the works. That suggests an autobiographical angle, confirmed by the photographs’ original publication on a private Instagram account alongside hashtags indicating emotional states: '#needs', for example, '#fragile'. As suggested in the title above, Price sees the process - which has become part of her publicly exhibited practice – as having had ‘a healing quality from experiences of trauma and oppression, a reclaiming of the self in safe spaces, both physical and online’.



It's natural to see food is a good thing. Eating is enjoyable and  keeps you alive. But we have increasing doubts: well yes, but how well, for how long, at what cost to the world? That leaves plenty for artists to pick up on. How sweet, asks Will Cotton, is too sweet? Is there poison in the system? (Mai-Thu Perret) Insofar as food made me, did it do a good job (Roxana Halls)?  Could meat be healthier if it were different? (Broughton & Birnie) Might agriculture itself be a mistake? (Alastair Mackie). Perhaps it's better to concentrate on food as ritual (Gareth Cadwallader), or on its form and history (Paulette Tavormina). That's not exactly gourmet relish but maybe it's the more nourishing path...

Will CottonCupcake Katy, 2010
American painter Will Cotton satirises indulgence in his world of ill-chosen food, with landscapes made of candy and models parading their sweetness. That fitted singer Katy Perry’s aesthetic, and she asked him to collaborate on the video for her single ‘California Gurls'. Not only did he do that, making some kind of reality of his fantasy world, he then used the video as a source to make paintings of how his own paintings came to life. That circularity stands in nicely for how hard it can be to escape the cycle of our unhealthy desires...

Mai-Thu Perret
Abnormally vivid, 2019

Nutritionally, apples aren’t the obvious example of food being bad for you, but consider the poisonous one offered to Snow White by the wicked witch - a story which carries a trace of the originating bad apple which got us expelled from Paradise. Moreover, Mai-Thu Perret’s basket of slightly rotten, half-eaten pomes, being baked in glazed ceramic, look a little like toffee apples. They’re not healthy on any level.

Roxana HallsCarvery, 2013

If 'you are what you eat' then it will be your childhood consumption which defines you. Roxana Halls’ self-portrait, from a wider practice which questions how gender and class norms circumscribe our choices, calls attention to the food from her youth. Halls says she’s very rarely seen such fare in paintings ‘as though, in contrast to its nostalgic importance to me, it were not considered of sufficient value for examination'. Here, then, she attempts to carve a life from a laden table - it isn’t easy, as the awkwardness of her action testifies. 

Broughton & BirnieMeat Garden, 2015

London-based collaborators Kevin Broughton and Fiona Birnie conjured up a 'Dream America' in ten paintings from 2014-15. Their garden of processed meat wittily emphasises how unnatural the suburban can be, while also blurring the line between animal and plant life. If sausages grew like this, I guess everyone would be vegetarian. Let's hope they'd contain less saturated fat than the conventionally-farmed version.

Alastair MackieCast, 2019

Medieval reapers believed that the last sheaf of corn standing contained a dangerous spirit, so they fashioned it into an effigy to be kept safe - in propitiation - throughout the winter. Alastair Mackie had such a sheaf plaited into a traditional spiral, then encapsulated - and, presumably, transmigrated - the spirit implied in bronze. With supplies of the critical food source of wheat threatened by climate change and population-fuelled growth in demand, the gesture has an uncomfortable relevance for today. 

Gareth CadwalladerPile of Oranges, 2017

Gareth Cadwallader has a curious way of painting intimately-scaled hyper-realistic representations of unrealistically structured vegetation. Against these backdrops his characters play out such everyday rituals as selecting an orange with enough intensity to suggest they are symbolic - but of what? Perhaps this refers to Roelof Louw’s Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges), 1967, but reshown at Tate Britain in 2016: a stack of some 6,000 oranges replaced on a rolling basis as visitors take part by 'consuming' the work.

Paulette Tavormina: Italian Plums, After G.G., 2015

The still life of fruit is the most resonant image of food in classical art. So here is one - or, rather, not - for the one-time food and prop stylist Paulette Tavormina expertly recreates arrangements typical of the genre in her New York studio, then captures them as photographs in a sort of reversal of photorealist painting. These plums are arranged in the manner of Giovanna Garzoni (1600–1670), an Italian famed for the meticulous realism of her botanical compositions, which typically featured a single insect. She's of additional interest as one of the few women able to prioritise an art career at the time.


Who Needs Masculinity?

Masculinity isn't what it used to be: a valued assertion of physical power and a fixed role as provider for and protector of wife and children. In many ways, of course, it never was. But the loss of apparent certainties, together with the reducing economic importance of manual labour roles traditionally filled by men, has arguably led to such well-reported effects as girls doing better academically than boys and 75% of UK suicides being male. Artists haven't been slow to reflect the new uncertainties and the positive changes which go with a more flexible approach to gender roles and, indeed, gender itself. Here Hayv Kahraman, Paul Pfeiffer, Jean-Baptiste Ganne and Tala Madani and  call attention to the nature of  stereotypes and the need to undermine them; while Erez Israeli, Brian Dawn Chalkley and Hassan Hajjij assert the new freedoms.

Hayv KahramanFive Court Compound, 2013, oil on wood

Having fled Iraq with her family during the Gulf War aged 11,  US-based Hayv Kahraman combines the modern experience of living between Western and Middle Eastern cultures with the historic aesthetics of the Renaissance, Persian miniatures and Japanese prints. All that feeds into the graceful,  female figures who recur as her painted proxy. They float like spirits over the plan of a traditional Baghdadi house in the series 'Let the Guest be the Master', centred on the courtyard as the place where men meet  while women must remain inside. There is consolation in the domestic domain, but also a critique of the male assumption of power. 

Paul PfeifferCaryatid (Margarito), 2015. Digital video loop, chromed 12” colour television, 0:31 minutes duration

If the essence if the old-fashioned ideal of masculinity is seen as power and conquest, then the most primeval sporting arena in which to demonstrate that is in boxing, a subject to which Paul Pfeiffer's  video manipulations have returned regularly. In the ongoing series Caryatids, started in 2003, he selects sequences in which a fighter receives unrelenting heavy blows from his opponent, but with the dominating boxer erased. We are left with the suffering of the body crumpling and recoiling under the blows and the question of what sort of victory it is when the victor is erased from the scene. A hollow way of being? 

15.Jean Baptiste Ganne Détumescences c Paul’s ART STUFF on a train # 114: ’A Hundred Women Wanted’

Jean-Baptiste GanneDétumescences, 2012 
Mixed Media ©Jean-Baptiste Ganne, Adagp, Paris, 2018

Continuing with sport as a traditional arena for the assertion of masculine values, maximum bragging rights come with the lifting of a trophy. But the phallic triumphalism of that act is undermined by the French multi-media artist Jean-Baptiste Ganne’s ‘Détumescences’,  in which the winners' cups have been tellingly melted. Maybe there's something in there about the rise of women's sport as well as the wilting of male pride.

Tala Madani:The Ascendant, 2018 
Oil on linen 50.8 x 43.2 cm 

Iranian-American artist Tala Madani came to attention for darkly comic paintings and animations in which the trope of the male gaze was reversed through her examination of hairy but bald-headed figures who caricature hyper-masculinity: revolting,  infantile, often humiliated yet seemingly content. Are men stupid? In recent years she has expanded her range considerably, but this new work is on that continuum: the positivity of progress towards the sun is undermined by its being a black one, and spewing out the world's shit. Yet the aspiring man - shown in sequence - seems unfazed.

Erez Israeli:  Madonna of the Flowers (2018)   

C-Print, 110 x 120 cm

Young Israeli artist Erez Israeli takes on all forms of oppression, exclusion and occlusions of memory. His blooming self-portrait cheekily cites Jean Genet's identification with those excluded from mainstream society in his book 'Madonna of the Flowers'. Israeli's head as still life might be seen as act of self-marginalisation by embracing flowers beyond the masculine norm, more fully than  even Frida Kahlo's assertive use of the floral fascinator in her self-portraits.

Brian Dawn Chalkley: from Missing, 2018
Each: watercolour on paper, 21.0 × 29.7cm 

Before his recent retirement, Chalkley used to lead the MA at Chelsea College as Brian and go out as Dawn by night. He also painted carefully fashioned portraits of Dawn as she wanted to be. The recent series 'Missing', at the Lungley Gallery, featured 454 characters much more loosely washed in with thin and dirtied colours. Many of the androgynous, figures, which could all be aspects of Brian Dawn, were accompanied by imagined monologues. They read as swings in mood and self-perception, building up to suggest an identity in flux:  'I am longing for attention from the right person' / 'I said fuck you baby' / 'grappling with my self-image is a daily task'...

Hassan HajjajMr M. Toliver, 2012/14
Metallic Lambda print on Dibond with wood and found objects
34.5 x 25 in

Pink specs to play Mozart? The masculine as dandy - a man paying particular attention to his style -  isn't unusual in the long sweep of historical styles, but has become rarer in the west since the word's Victorian coinage. Hassan Hajjaj - Moroccan-born, but long-time London-based - glories in the use of extreme dress to assert black presence in portraits which fuse the languages of  fashion, pop and the African tradition of studio photography.  He maximises the effect by framing his images in found objects such as the  chewing gum packs seen here.

Steven Cohen: Performance, 2014

For over two decades, South African artist Steven Cohen, ahead of the curve in positing sexual identity as unfixed, has performed in exaggerated drag. He often chooses non-art contexts the better to shock and provoke the audience into recognising their prejudiced views of what a man should be - most famously at a Rugby Cup Final in Pretoria in 1998. Exposing his penis asserts his gender clearly and incongruously, though it got him arrested when - having moved to France for a while  - he danced in an outlandish costume with his  cock attached to a cockerel, punning on the national symbol in front of its most phallic source of pride, the Eiffel Tower.  


When Are You Born?


There's a bit more to it than the date which will feature in your obituary. Other points might be considered, as illustrated here. An act of conception (Emma Talbot), leads to pregnancy (Oskar Diwicki) and expulsion (Gauri Gill). Then comes the official matter of the birth certificate (McArthur Binion) followed by the birthdays which punctuate growing up (Wayne Thiebaud provides the cake) before the emergence as an artist giving birth to creations (Elina Brotherus). And if that doesn't work out, there may be a need for rebirth (Luke Gottelier) - otherwise it's downhill all the way to unbirthing (or death, as it's sometimes called) which is beyond our scope. 

Emma Talbot:  Love is Fluid, 2018 - watercolour on Indian paper, 30 x 42 cm  

Emma Talbot has said she aims to show 'what it's like to be me, alive today' along with 'the kinds of thoughts that are in my head', though the facial blankness of her characters makes it easy for the viewer to project themselves into her world. Talbot often builds up multiple images, patterns and texts, with remembered experiences alongside a ragbag of references from popular and literary culture. Unsurprisingly, love scenarios - as in this simpler watercolour - often surface, with the potential for conception to operate through a natural harmony of method and subject.  

Oskar Dawicki: Armatura Polonica Utilitate Graviditatis, 2017 - steel, 60 x 45 x 45 cm. Courtesy of Raster gallery, Warsaw. 

Given that pregnant women ensure the continuity of the species, shouldn't they be the natural model of the super-hero? That seems to be the thinking of Oskar Dawicki, a Polish artist best known as a practitioner of what he terms 'total performance'. He built a whole exhibition in Warsaw around a vision of such a pregnant woman, for whom he had this refreshingly unorthodox ‘Polish utility armour for pregnancy’ forged by a metalsmith. On to the battles for better child care, workplace equality and beyond... 

Gauri Gill: from the Birth Series, 2005 

The Indian photographer Gauri Gill has been documenting marginalized communities in rural Rajastan since 1999. In the eight-image Birth Series, made in a remote village in Ghafan in 2005, the great dai Kasumbi delivers the baby of a veiled mother-to-be. A close relative presses her feet against the soles of the expectant mother's feet, and grasps her hands to create resistance. Gill told me she was asked to help by boiling water and so on - engaging her fully in being there, as well as in presenting the dramas of life with the same matter-of-factness as applies in the region's daily existence.

McArthur Binion: DNA:Sepia:V, 2016, - Oil paint stick, ink and paper on board, 121.9 × 101.6 cm  - Photo: Robert Chase Heishman
Courtesy  Massimo De Carlo, Milan, London, Hong Kong

In his DNA series, ongoing since 2013, the veteran American McArthur Binion (born 1946) presents variations on the modernist grid which disguise - until you get close - his use of such private documents as his birth certificate. His personal archives are subsumed into the authority of canonical art, so reflecting on his own identity as a black artist in the white-dominated history of abstract expressionism - a narrow account now being broadened to include him along with such as Jack Whitten, Frank Bowling and Sam Gilliam. 

Wayne Thiebaud: Wayne Thiebaud, One and a Half Cakes, 1981

Wayne Thiebaud is still painting at 97 – including the cakes for which he is best known. Fired by his memories of bakeries, diners and plenty of birthdays, they are exercises in the formal possibilities of geometry, colour, sharp shadows and thickly creamy textures through which the paint takes on some of the appetising quality of its subject. They also tap in to a collective American nostalgia: Thiebaud says he saw the same meringue pies ‘in every restaurant from Sacramento to New York. So it began to make a lot of sense to paint them.’

Elina Brotherus: Portrait Series (Yellow Music with Sunflowers) 2016, 70 x 96 cm / 80 x 110 cm – Courtesy of the artist and camara oscura galeria de arte, Madrid.

For an artist, the birth of creation is critical. What if you have no inspiration? The Finnish photographer Elina Brotherus plays on that in a series based on a list of 'art ideas' John Baldessari gave to his indecisive students at CalArts in 1970s. Brotherus so enjoyed teaching with them, she decided to do them herself. Here she responds to Baldessari proposing that the face be hidden in portraits, ‘trying to allow other information to surface and define the person'.  Brotherus chooses a setting which might also remind us of Van Gogh as the archetype of the inspired artist.  

Luke Gottelier: Hamster Studio, 2016

The past is bound to feed into any artist's present, but few make that as explicit as Luke Gottelier, who returns to old, potentially discarded paintings to oversee their rebirth in new forms. There's often some cathartic abuse involved: he's set fireworks off on one old painting and turned another into an ashtray. Perhaps the most extreme reuse to date has been to use the painting as a base for a hamster cage which duplicates an artist's studio in miniature. But surely rebirth is one thing one cannot delegate



A luxury is an item for which demand increases disproportionately as income rises. It is something you might want, but don't need, likely to be valuable but pointless. Is art itself a luxury? On the one hand the job of a gallerist might – cynically - be characterised as persuading people who already have everything to buy more; on the other hand, self-expression is more an instinct than a luxury, and most artists make art because they must. Here are some works which ask questions of that interface between luxury and art.

Jeff Koons: Diamond (Green)  - mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating

Llala Essaydi: Harem Revisited series, 2012, No 33

Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi - now based in the USA - gives voice to women in the loaded contexts  of  the harem, the historically male art of calligraphy, and the Orientalist vision of the odalisque. The use of lavish 17-19th century ceremonial textiles further positions women as decorative objects, but the female tradition of henna is used to signal defiance through Essaydi's signature technique of covering her models with writing. The scripts, mysterious in their unreadability, are a poetic stream of consciousness on the artist’s and models’ experiences as women.

 Nicole Wermers, Infrastruktur, installation view, 2015

Nicole Wermers: Infrastruktur, 2015

Nicole Wermers has often worked with how goods are displayed. For Infrastruktur, 2015, vintage fur coats, relined to match the seat colours, are sewn onto classic Marcel Breur chairs. Is this a high-end version of towels reserving sun loungers, or a break in some convention of the glamorous rich?  The contrast of sculptural materials is striking, and the exclusivity implied by the reservation of space is magnified by the value of the possessions employed. Moreover, the wall holds ceramic versions of those tear-off flyers through which to obtain the phone number of a potential flatshare. Luxury is contrasted with crude utility, but both represent systems of social organisation and an infrastructure of sorts.


Juno Calypso: Rosemary's Room, 2018 from ‘What to do with a million years’ 2018

In 2015, Juno Calpyso created something of a sensation with her staged self-portraits taken in the would-be-luxurious and odd-for-one location of the American ‘love hotel’. Her new series does likewise in an even more surreal - and genuinely luxurious - setting. ‘What To Do With A Million Years’ is finds Calypso's alter ego in an underground house built in the 1960’s by Avon cosmetics founder Jerry Henderson. Hyper-pink bedroom, gold and crystal taps, swimming pool and waterfall are present, correct - and untouched for decades. The lighting imitates natural cycles, and murals at the windows give the impression of outdoor scenes. The current owners, Calpyso discovered, are cryonics enthusiasts – rather creepy seekers of immortality, the one luxury you cannot buy.

Josh Kline: Alternative Facts, 2017 - cheap cellphone, luxury cellphone, hardware, duct tape, and unique customized wooden display

Josh Kline makes upbeat films of possible ideal societies, featuring, for example, racial harmony and a universal basic income. But he conjoins them with installations anatomising the dystopian consequences of increasing inequality, automation putting millions out of work, and an imagined new civil war in the US. 'Alternative Facts' is from a series which crudely tape together 'cheap' and 'luxury' versions of everyday objects like fridges, blenders and laptops with titles such as 'Resentment' and 'Denial' emphasising how they give sculptural form to social divisions.

Michael Craig-Martin: Credit card from Objects of our time, 2014

What can’t be yours if you wave the right plastic? Michael Craig-Martin has an uninfected yet distinctive way of finding beauty in quotidian objects through colours brought to their maximum intensity. This credit card is an extreme example of how, as he puts it, “there’s very little information in these works, the information is in the viewer” - for we can fill in the cultural and social connotations. Craig-Martin’s 2015 Serpentine retrospective ‘Transience’ positioned him as an archaeologist of items now in the past, like VHS tapes and traditional light bulbs. Perhaps, though, his is the future of credit cards: coolly reduced to abstraction, all data invisibly encrypted.

Image result for adham faramawy vichy

Adham Faramawy: Still from Vichy Shower 2013

Adham Faramawy’s pair of films Vichy Shower and Hydra, 2014, show naked men and women, sumptuously coated in soap suds and mud masks, drinking endless bottles of mineral water. Consistent with how that's marketed, water is presented as a luxurious product – indeed, it is fetished as it runs over skin in maximum definition, and the showering figures can't get enough. Yet, of course, water isn’t a luxury at all, but a necessity - and one with severe concerns over the long-term adequacy of supply: the future likelihood of ‘water wars’ is widely accepted. That’s one half of an equation, the films might suggest, in which we increasingly treat luxuries and necessities the wrong way around.

Harmen Brethouwer: Exquisite Corpse, 2015-2016 3D printed, pigmented sandstone - Collection Museum Boymans van Beuningen Rotterdam. Image: Courtesy Hidde van Seggelen, Hamburg

Decoration is by definition functionally redundant, and so luxurious. For 30 years the Dutch artist Harmen Brethouwer has been channeling the history of decoration and the skills which made it into repetitive forms, one being the cone. He commissions experts in such dying crafts as filigree and fake marbling to apply their skills. The recent Exquisite Corpse project tweaks this by using as its source The Grammar of Ornament (Owen Jones, 1856) which presents patterns of many cultures and materials in a common format. That suggests the potential for interchange which Brethouwer then applies by combining traditions on the layered sections of each cone: here colours and characteristics of four materials - Gold, Cardboard, Strawberry and Jellyfish - were combined with the patters of four styles: Indian, Moresque, Chinese and Egyptian.



At its purest, angst is due to ‘the human condition’, rather than a specific cause. That’s central to the existentialist tradition developed from Kiekegaard’s liberating yet horrifying realisation that he had the ‘dizzying’ freedom to control his own fate (The Concept of Anxiety, 1844) to Roquentin’s sickening estrangement from the world in Sartre’s Nausea (1938). Munch tapped into that sense with The Scream, and it was prominent in post-war art, most powerfully through Francis Bacon. Yet there are reasons for anxiety, and just as the threat of nuclear war loomed in the 1950’s, we have plenty of potential triggers for our anxieties - from data overload to terrorism to being watched to global warming to failed ideals – as well as the unavoidable fact that life is a process of dying. Contemporary artists speak to all of those angst-ridden concerns…

Bronze,138 × 120 × 120 cm

Rodolphe Janssen (Brussels)

Belgian artist Thomas Lerooy is visibly inspired by the macabre humour of James Ensor. Here the absurd conjunction of a collosal head with a body it is bound to immobilise undercuts the seriousness of the public scultures from which both elements could plausibly have come. The other implication seems to be that there's more to survival than the mere size of your brain, it's how you use it that counts. And surely that's our present condition: all the technological advances and understanding of the world combined with the angst of knowing that's no help in saving the world.

Pieter Hugo: Portrait #9, Rwanda from the series '1994', 2014

Stevenson Gallery, South Africa

South African Pieter Hugo has spent two decades photographing marginalized and unusual communities, most famously Nigerians with hyenas in 2007.  His recent series '1994' has a far more restrained power: images of children in bucolic settings but posed in adult clothes ask the question: being born after the end of apartheid and the Rwandan genocide 20 years previously, can they escape the past to bring new hope and innocence, or will what went on in these very landscapes infect their lives with residual angst? Moreover, how much can their parents do - and Hugo includes his own in the series - to steer the next generation away from the burden of the past? 


Robbert Weide: Breather Holes, 2017 – chewed straws inside verneered chipboard, stress  - Martin von Zomeran, Amsterdam

Plenty of angst can attach, of course, to the production of art. So it is for Robbert Weide (born Amsterdam, 1975), who relieves the stress by chewing on straws - which he then found himself poking into holes in chipboard. The title ‘Breather Holes’ adds the suggestion, however, that we could breathe through the straws if only he hadn’t chewed them up, or through the holes if only he hadn’t blocked them with straws. Time to get seriously worried…

Ena Swansea: get out, 2017 - oil and acrylic on linen,241 x 279 cm - Ben Brown Fine Art
Pathetic fallacy or not, it's easy to read moods into landscapes. Here I find the branches, not really recorded but defined by the snow on them and and some sort of black rain effect, trigger a troubled mood heightened by the title - from what threat does the rider have to escape? The particularly unnatural luridity of his outfit is worthy of a chemical spill. That said, the American painter may well see this as an upbeat vision of how wonderful it is to get out in the fresh air in the latest cycling kit. But that's the thing about angst, once it gets a grip...

Amalia Pica and Rafael Ortega: Music para 429 Megaponeros, 2017 - 2.17 minute video loop with music by Rigo Quesada - Herald Street

London-based Argentine artist Amalia Pica and her film-maker partner, Rafael Ortega, have recently spent time in the Congo researching how chimpanzee societies operate, That's where they made this film of ants. Their witty intervention is to give each an identifying number as it comes into view: while we assume ants fold naturally into the social organism with no sense of individual identity, we now wonder. If that self-perception of being an insignificant individual subject to larger forces can be imputed to an ant, what wonder we humans get caught up in the same angst?  

Théophile Blandet: Fountain of Knowledge, 2017 - Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam

I suspect the contemporary equivalent of la nauseé is feeling overwhelmed by the constant stream of information by which we’re bombarded. Eindhoven-based French artist Théophile Blandet laboriously paints over the results of his own internet searches, so that the images are radically frozen on the screen just as we become frozen in the surfeit. Here his searches for Siemens engineering and on an Internet shopping site leave only residual room for technology. You might as well have a fish tank in the room: cue the ever-changing background formed by the online live stream of an aquarium...

Monika Sosnowska: Pavilion, 2016

Monika Sosnowka's practice originated from photographing the architectural impact of the upheavals following on from the 1989 revolution in her native Poland: hasty, and largely cosmetic, renovation alongside neglect, dereliction and demolition. She uses the original fabricators to make precise copies - here the steel frame of a shopping pavilion in Lublin - then twist and squeeze the idealism out of them, just as history did in their functional lives, to leave a slumped, animalistic form to do battle with the gallery's clean new space.  The results
are tortured, for sure, yet oddly graceful.

Pietro Mattioli: Untitled (Angst on Wheels / Paravan), 2015

Pietro Mattioli captures the lorries of a wholesale butcher's firm founded in Zurich 75 years ago by Heiri Angst, and combines eight images into a perspectival play. That might seem no cause for anxiety - unless you're a cow - but the resulting 3D form echoes the distinctive roof of an artists' studio complex built by Ernst Gisel. That features in other work by Mattioli as a surrogate self-portrait, for the Swiss photographer has chaired the managing committee since 2002. Is he suggesting that the role has its stresses?  



While there’s nothing wrong with being attracted to an image for sexual reasons, the possibility makes for a potentially awkward interplay when considering art which takes sex as its subject. Wherein lies the interest? I suspect, for example, that it's the sex, not the art, which generates the strong reactions to Allen Jones' work, which falls somewhat flat when his art plays the lead role. To make satisfying art about sex typically requires an indirect approach, a leavening of humour, the introduction of a wider agenda, or a foregrounded engagement with aesthetics beyond those of the body. None of which need stop us starting off, as a Cockney might say, with a bottle and glass, a stick of rock and Sir Anthony Blunt.

Eric Yahnker: Golden Asshat, 2017 -  pastel on paper, 49 x 46 in

LA-based former animator Eric Yahnker tweaks pop sources into witty scenarios in order to make a point. For example, a southern girl finds her dress straps make a negative union cross out of her sun tan.  The sleek pastel ‘Golden Asshat’ is closer to straight comedy, as it emphasises at double life-size the cleavage of an attractively androgynous bum through a ridiculous – yet persuasive - visual pun.  Yet there’s a dark side, too, as the possible implication is that this body ends at waist level - in which case a critique of objectification is implied.

Sarah Lucas: Angel, 2016 - beer can penis with wings

Sarah Lucas has various ways of making penises - not just, she's said, because she hasn't got one, but  for reasons of 'voodoo, economics and totemism'. The simplest squash two beer cans together to construct a near-tautological male package through a stereotypical symbol of the male. Here Lucas builds on that suggestion of an old-fashioned evening down the pub using her more recent and differently double-edged signature material of cigarettes. Given that they form wings, conjuring and poking fun at the classical sacred phallus and the tradition of the unsexed angel, her bawdiness gets quite complex.

Stephane GraffUntitled (Courbet / Fontana), 2015 - acrylic silkscreen, oil on wood, 61 x 86 cm

Franco-British artist Stephane Graff's source for his 'Catalogue of Errors' series is auctions: referring to the typical double-page spread featuring a work of art to one side and its accompanying description on the other, he pairs faithful reproductions of the illustrations of one work with the catalogue entry for another in order to undermine artistic identity and set up ricochets of meaning and value. Here Graff points up the sexual interpretation of the incisions  which Fontana made in his cuts series by choosing a fleshily pink example, and by matching it with Courbet's famous 'Origin of the World', much the most famous artistic depiction of a pubic region.

archival pigment print, 120 x 120 cm

The Mexican photographer Flor Garduño, who trained with Manuel Alvarez Bravo, deals sensually and often surreally with the body and with organic items such as fruit and flowers. They come together in her most famous images, of nudes with giant leaves.  Here chirimoyas, also known as custard apples from their creamy texture, carry a hint of the exotic which, say, the banana can no longer claim. Add the implied temptations of taste and touch and the interplay of inner and outer form, and plenty of passion seethes beneath this still life. 

Annie Attridge: Should of Could of Would of, no. 7, 2016 - porcelain, tin glaze, concrete pillar - porcelain 17 x 10 x 6cm

Annie Attridge is in love with porcelain - putting its seductive qualities through its baroque paces - and with love: this is from a series which relish the pleasures of actual or imagined  lesbian interaction, shamelessly taking over the prototypically male interest in comically exaggerated bodies and mysterious masking. Is all about sex? She says not, for the act is raised on a pedestal of veneration, the concrete of which provides a strong foundation for a relationship, and the bed is on a scaffold, offering further support - though some doubt is surely allowed, if your scaffold is of porcelain.

Daniel Sinsel: Untitled, 2016 - Oil on woven linen support, hazelnutshells, lime wood stretcher 150 × 130 × 12 cm

London-based German Daniel Sinsel has a way of fetishising modernist tropes. Here woven tape sets up a grid which is disturbed by the bumps of hazelnuts over and under it. They’re set into painted fig - rather than hazel – leaves: the art historical cover for nudity.  Given Sinsel’s stated aim of realising a ‘universal and suggestive, dormant eroticism’, the nuts can be read as testicular, the salmon spot as a nipple, and the weaving as a summoning of actions in and out. The whole is also a chance to explore spatial tensions which have a frisson of their own

Bastian Gehbauer: Verrichtungsboxen, North Rhine Westphalia, Germany 2013

Form follows function in young German photographer Bastian Gehbauer's cool depictions of little-seen spaces in which processes take place: a pink-lit greenhouse, an automated crematorium, and this  garage of sorts - literally a 'performance box' - designed to allow sexual services to be provided more safely in cars. The set-up, he explains,  enables the prostitute to flee the passenger seat on the right in case she is threatened, whereas it is almost impossible for the driver to open his door. An emergency button is also located in almost every unit.  The property has a generous fence and is opened and closed by the regulatory authority every day in accordance with its 'business hours'.

Dale Lewis: Sunday Roast, 2015 - Oil, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 200 x 400 cm

There are many means of censorship, but Dale Lewis comes up with the most logical: hide the cocks in the orifices. The resultant chain of connections just add to the all-over energy typical of the upcoming Lewis’ enormous multi-figure widescreen format compositions - this is four metres wide. They’re planned in some detail, with compositions derived from Renaissance masterpieces, but the daringly rapid paint handling comes while the paint can be moved around best -  often over one day's frenzied sixteen hour session. As for the title, is that sexual slang, or does the action take place while the more conventionally behaved are tucking into their meat and veg? 

Cary Kwok: Arrival (La Belle Époque), 2016 - Dalbergia Odorifera Wood, Resin, Brass, Pearlescent paint, Wood Wax, Cable, Inline Switch, Lightbulb holder, Plug, E14 Lightbulb - 160 x 50 x 49 cm

London-based Hong Kong born Cary Kwok’s camp pastiche comes into its own in the baroque flourish of improbably leaping ejaculate. His series of detailed blue biro portraits at the point of orgasm concentrates on faces partially obscured by abstract expressionist splurges, most memorably when Popeye’s self-decoration is revealed as spinach green. Lately Kwok has played the knowing excess into would-be architectural designs, complete with priapic fountains and - as here - internal decor. The lamp rather suits semen's origin story: let there be life, let there be light...

Sue Williams: Busy Blue, 2016 - oil on canvas, 122 x 148cm

The – scientifically controversial - principle of homeopathy is that vanishingly small amounts of a diluted substance can trigger a reaction. Sue Williams might be seen as testing a parallel art theory. In the 1990’s, the explicitly sexual content of her paintings critiqued patriarchal society. Those morphed into all-over semi-abstract swirls of body parts, orifices, and betokened organs. Her latest work goes further: not much looks bodily, but you can still spot the odd hint. Sex has been swallowed up in everyday life – from which it may emerge at any moment, as we know… 

Extension to cover Frieze New York, 2018:

There’s usually a smattering of sex at art fairs. Frieze New York is no exception, but the most interesting sex-themed works on show this week typically have a dark undercurrent. Louise Bourgeois (Cheim & Read) and Tracey Emin (Xavier Hufkens) set the scene with couplings born out of angst. Tom of Finland’s explicit, celebratory and increasingly celebrated drawings (David Kordansky) now represent the prelapsarian world before Aids. Los Carpinteros’s film Skin (Peter Kilchmann) connects sex and death with ingenious directness by showing what seems to be one couple ageing progressively during ten minutes of making love. Here are some works in which the sex is more than a little complicated

 Mira Schor, Dicks or The Impregnation of the Universe, 1988 

The Spotlight section is dedicated to solo artist presentations of work made in the twentieth century, with an emphasis on rediscovery. Mira Schor’s Dick paintings from 1988-93 have never been exhibited before, but in the gallery’s words “with a self-professed groper in the White House, Schor’s paintings of limp members and receptive ears feel searingly relevant”. So much so, perhaps, that Schor (born in New York in 1950) has returned to the theme in new work made after Trump’s election. This huge work (ten feet high) is built up of twenty-one small canvases, suggesting both diminution of phallic pretension and the possibility of more healthy approaches to intimacy.

Lyles & King, New York

Anthony Iacono, Rose, 2017

New York artist Anthony Iacono trained as a sculptor, which is evident in the treatment of his crisp images, collages made from painted paper which is cut and assembled with the intricate precision of parquetry. Iacono uses the technique to make observations about sexual mores, balancing a sort of detachment, which could be read as boredom, with a sense of fascination, which could be seen as desire. Here I am reminded that roses have thorns, even as I recall Morrissey’s predilection for singing with gladioli stuffed down the back of his trousers.

P·P·O·W, New York

Armin Boehm, Mountain View, 2018

German painter Armin Boehm’s complex painting shows politicians alongside tech world leaders such as Sundar Pichai of Google, Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg. I take it to critique how technology alters the way in which people see themselves and what they might become. A woman seemingly obsessed with self-presentation is melting like a semi-mechanical figure into a table, under which the floor is torn apart to reveal a glimpse into another world where a cyborg is being constructed. It, in turn, holds a tablet displaying a pornographic scene: will even robots be affected by the modern excess of sexual images?

Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich 

Courtesy the artist and Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

Zilia Sánchez, Topología Erótica, 1982

Cuban-born Zilia Sánchez, now ninety-two, lived in Havana, New York and Madrid before settling in Puerto Rico in the early 1970s. Her work, though formally abstract, has a bodily sensuality, especially in the undulating shaped canvases she’s been stretching over hand-molded wooden armatures for over fifty years. That undercurrent is emphasized by the title of “erotic topography”, but the typically dark and muted tonality and a suggestion of decapitation takes this some way from a straightforward invocation of pleasure.

Galerie Lelong, Paris / New York

Laure Prouvost, Cooling System (for Global Warming), 2017

Lisson’s newest signing, 2013 Turner Prize winner Laure Prouvost comes up with a typically quirky and sexually provocative answer to global warming. The individually blown breasts—glass, not balloons—provide a means of mothering the world through cooling. Temperatures soared unseasonably high during the fair, which was too much for the air conditioning, and rather made me wish Prouvost’s proposal had reached the stage of a working prototype.

Lisson Gallery, London / New York

F.marquespenteado, Butched In from the series Identifique as Palavras do Vernáculo Das Prisões, 2012 

Portugal-based Brazilian-born artist F.marquespenteado does not align with a specific gender. Their use of embroidery links clothing accessories, books and found objects in complex scenarios, which often explore the performance of gender. This beautifully sewn black on black example literalizes the darkness in drawings by Jean Cocteau which depict sex in prisons, so applying a tradition often seen as feminine to male relationships, in circumstances in which power and violence are in play.

Mendes Wood, Sao Paulo / Brussels


Daniel Firman's elephant balancing on its trunk was a bit too obvious for the comedy article, though the horizontal wall-sucking version is less well-known... (Nasutamanus, various versions since 2008)


What makes for successful comedy in art? If there were rules, it wouldn’t work, but the key may be that surprise or incongruity leads to a recognition that there are deeper issues to dig into under the surface of the joke.  That may, of course, bring in disturbing or melancholy or aspects: Richard Prince rubs the punchline in just too hard; Bruce Nauman is one of many artists to edgily play out the cliché of the sadness behind the clown’s mask. Here are six recent examples which lure us with humour only to reverberate with psychological, environmental, economic or social concerns.

Paola Pivi: I am Tired of Eating Fish, 2017

Italian artist Paola Pivi is best-known for working directly with live animals, putting ostriches, zebras and donkeys in surprising, yet unphotoshopped, situations. Her full size bears surprise differently: they act in a far from ursine manner, and are made of feathers, absurdly parodying the possibility of flight and, perhaps, idealists who talk up how ‘you can be whatever you want to be’. Recent examples take the surreal turn a stage further by sporting neon colours and bearing light-hearted titles. It’s almost enough to banish their frightening aspect, but a slight frisson does remain when one looms over you… 

Sarah Anne Johnson: Uck, 2016 – chromogenic print with glitter 

It’s not so easy to be funny about the environment, so credit to Canadian photographer Sarah Anne Johnson: what seems at first like an immature – if still amusing – fallen letter gag turns out to incorporate a protest against immature thinking which betrumps nature. The addition of real glitter ties Uck into her series Field Trip, in which she alters her images with paint and digitally to revisit the in psychedelic colours the idealistic hedonism of her own festival-going youth through a nostalgic yet more knowing lens.


Martin Creed: Work No. 2814, 2017

2001 Turner Prize winner Martin Creed tries to avoid the stress of taking decisions in his art - not even whether to turn the lights on or off. As something of a hoarder (presumably he can’t decide what to throw away) Creed has recently  been evading choosing his art materials by using stuff that’s piled up incidentally in his house – plastic bags, for example. We’ve all seen the odd bag tangled in branches, but multiplying them into synthetic blossom plays on the language of abstract painting while making for an ominously absurd vision of the dangers of waste displacing nature. 


Cao Fei: Rumba II: Nomad, 2015 - 14 min video and installation 

China’s leading new media artist, Cao Fei, set domestic vacuum cleaning robots free to roam a building site on the fringes of Beijing on which – as is the Chinese rule - the structure of the past was being pulled down. The bots come across as alien and threatening yet friendly and comical. Sometimes chickens stand on them to hitch a ride. Evidently, and metaphorically, their ‘cleaning’ task is hopeless: there’s no reversing the rolling cycles of urbanisation. In front of the film, to stress the point, three bots acted out their edge-sensitive dance on top of the traditional form of plinths.

Dana Schutz: Boy with Bubble, 2015 - Oil on canvas 100 x 128 cm

Dana Shutz’s characters tend to seem stuck between composition and decomposition as they attempt the absurd, such as eating their own faces. They’re funny, yes, but troubling. Here she wittily rhymes all sorts of circles, including the head of a bubble-headed lederhosen lad, and sets them against the angularities of the Alps. Is that a smile or just a concentrating tongue as he anticipates popping the bubble? Does art, we might wonder, transform the surroundings or merely reflect its creator? And either way, how long will it - or we - last?



John Smith: Steve Hates Fish, 2015still from 5 minute video  

John Smith – that’s the John Smith, of course – has subversively exploited misunderstandings since his seminal The Girl Chewing Gum, 1972.  In Steve Hates Fish he scans signs with a translator app – but having set his phone to convert French into English, causing the programme to thrash around hopelessly  when faced by a London street. ‘Fruit & Vegetables’ becomes ‘Profit Venerable’ and ‘Current’ rentals become ‘Surreal’, parodying the verbal clutter of the cityscape and challenging our instinct to make sense of it. And what could it mean, in the Brexit context, to see a Briton self-defeatingly misapply what comes from Europe?


 Christian Jankowski: Massage Masters, 2017

Christian Jankowski has a way with public statues as part of his wider strategy of playing people outside the art world into his multimedia productions. For Heavy Weight History, he challenged powerlifters to raise the great and the bad, a light-hearted way of engaging with such burdens on history as Stalin and Reagan. Now, he has recruited masseurs to optimise the wellbeing – and, who knows, maybe in consequence the communicative effect - of stone figures around the streets of Yokahama. When he screened his film of the event, viewers in turn received massages, surely rather wasted on flesh.

James Hopkins: Scaled Ladder, 2014 - Wood and Stone

James Hopkins presents an implausible object, its spindly wooden slats bearing heavy rock to no apparent purpose. We’re tempted to seek a logic. Have the small rocks risen because they weigh less? It can’t be that, their density’s the same. Is it that the relative mass of a mountain as you climb it is echoed by the stones’ sizes as we imagine ascending the ladder? Meantime, the title puns on 'scale' as the act of climbing a summit, a fundamental concept of sculpture, and a reference to the diminishing size of the stones – and that brings out the resemblance to an abacus.

Gelitin: Golem, 2015 - Glazed ceramic, 21 × 23 × 25 cm  

The sexual and scatological are perfectly unrespectable zones for art humour, and Gelitin are often found there. That said, their series of Golems seem innocent enough – until you see the film of them being made in what the Austrian collective term ‘an oneiric ritual to unhinge their primordial spirits’ for which, in their gallery's deadpan words, 'they immerse themselves in clay and model it using their own bodies as a medium'. Never mind the macho male artist metaphorically ‘painting with his penis’, or Henry Moore’s spatial use of holes, the film shows the four men literally fucking the forms into being. 

Sofia Hultén, Reality Plural, 2017 – three drain covers, cement, asphalt, preserved leaves

Berlin-based but Birmingham-raised Swede Sofia Hultén draws you in to what looks like three ‘slices of reality’, perhaps in the style of the Boyle Family’s casts of the earth’s surface. Has she pulverised them and recast the material tautologically into a new version of itself, as in her ‘Partical Boredom’ series? No, there’s something else amiss: the tarmac underlay, paving surface and fallen leaves are presented in three different orders, as if the world could easily be differently scrambled. Maybe it could… Hultén has made films documenting such comparable actions as eating an apple before removing it from the plastic bag.

About Me

My photo
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.