Wednesday, 8 December 2010


The view out from the NADA art fair, 4 December 2010

It was tough being stuck in Miami while Britain jammed up in the coldest pre-Christmas period this century: how to split the time between art, beach and bar? There was certainly plenty of art: not only was Art Basel Miami Beach huge, it was complemented by no fewer than 14 alternative fairs and a slew of other events. The main event had lots of large sculpture and big-hitting painting (read: dealers expected expensive items to sell), but I also noticed quite a few more modest works which might reasonably be classified as that old-fashioned item: the recognizable portrait. And that does fit in with the continuing influence of Andy Warhol, several of whose portrait takes on glamour and wealth were scattered around; Alex Katz, whose poised surfaces seemed to be everywhere; and the posthumously rising Alice Neal, whose more psychologically-charged approach was also in evidence. Add to those trajectories the documentary impulse, and the use of an individual’s image as one of the myriad routes into conceptual content, and you had – if not a trend, then certainly a sufficient population from which to make a classically bookended choice.

Kehinde Wiley: Abiel McIntosh, After Pontormo, 2010 @ Roberts & Tilton, LA

Kehinde Wiley’s well-established approach remains potent: he asks young black men to model, and then shows them a range of classical paintings from which they pick a pose. The models also collaborate on the choice of elaborate clothing and background patterns, so achieving an element of empowerment in the context of what were disempowering historical realities. Much of the visual interest derives from the literalised interaction between figure and ground, in which the decorative elements appear animated.

Pieter Hugo: John Mark, Asaba, Nigeria, 2008 @ Michael Stevenson, Cape Town

You may well have seen the striking ‘hyena men’ photographs of South African Pieter Hugo – who will, incidentally, show in London at Riflemaker in the spring. This is one of his dynamic depictions of Nigerian actors in scenarios and make-up reflecting the fast, loud and excessively dramatic aesthetic of ‘Nollywood’ – which is the third largest film industry in the world, releasing onto the home video market some 1,000 movies annually. Hugo asked the actors and assistants to recreate the fictional yet everyday world of typical film sets, with hallucinatory results.

Will Cotton: Katy – Sugar Beach, 2010 @ Mary Boone Gallery, New York

American painter Will Cotton satirises indulgence by making paintings of models made out of sugar and finding sweet things everywhere, from houses to cupcake hats. That – without the irony, perhaps – 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 has now used the video as a source to make paintings of his own paintings coming to life. I rather like that circularity.

Pavel Büchler: Nodds, 2006 @ Max Wigram Gallery, London

It was a telling struggle to find old women among the portraits (the wrinkle-free styling of Alex Katz’s wife and muse Ada felt like only a partial exception). There were some old men, though, and the famously craggy visage of Samuel Beckett was doubly in evidence in the Manchester-based Czech Pavel Büchler’s short video loops. He seemed to be nodding, but in a stuttering manner which suggested some reluctance in a writer whose work was famously negative. Given that this comes from a set of loops which present avant garde and revolutionary figures as more stuck than progressive (Lenin, Gagarin and Guevara also appear) the nodding seems the more ironic.

Jon Pylypchuk: Drunk Old Painting, 2010 @ Fredric Snitzer Gallery, Miami

The LA-based Canadian Jon Pylypchuk showed a new body of work at his Miami gallery. He moved from endearingly abject animals constructed out of found scraps to portraits - of sorts - of comical alien characters made from cardboard sprayed with polyurethane, with very effective eyes using the black bulbs most often seen in party lighting. Some were sculptures, but I especially liked those which pretended to be paintings. Pylypchuk told me he’d wanted to start as if from scratch with non-found materials, and new life forms had emerged. Several are smoking and have titles which make pointed references to the artist’s own battle to give up the weed.

Tony Cragg: Untitled, 2010 @ Buchmann Gallery, Berlin

I loved this dynamically intricate multi-head drawing by the Berlin-based British sculptor. Cragg says he uses drawing as a way of investigating purely graphic procedures which at the same time clarify his thinking in three dimensions. Just so, this is an independent drawing, not a preparatory study, but picks up an extra aspect by relating indirectly to his well-known series of sculptures which look abstract but reference the face in profile.

Adam McEwen: Untitled (Caster), 2010 @ Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, New York

New York based Scot Adam McEwen is known for abstract-tending conceptual investigations, but has a past life as an obituary writer at the Daily Telegraph. He has exploited that in a series of twelve homages which apply the obituary format to still-living celebrities, saying he is interested in that brief second when you aren't sure whether they are alive or dead, so achieving a split second of turning the world upside down. The result is at once mournful and life-affirming, proposing that we celebrate people’s actions more fully when they are alive. Here he showed obituaries of Kate Moss and the controversial South African runner Caster Semenya.

Evan Penny: Old Self (Portrait of the artist as he will not be), Variation #1, 2010 @ Sperone Westwater, New York

South African-come-Canadian sculptor Evan Penny is known for hyper-real figures in silicone, pigment, hair and fabric. They play with scale and points of view, recently by using a digital scanning process which aligns them with photography. But was this over life-sized head a portrait, a self-portrait or neither? It shows how Penny (well preserved in his late 50’s), imagines he might look in thirty years’ time. As the title suggests, any such prediction is bound to be wrong, however thoroughly attempted and however close it might prove, so this isn’t a self-portrait so much as an alternate possible future self or someone altogether else…

Pawel Althamer: Jøzio, 2010 @ Neugerriemschneider, Berlin

This is one of the assistants at the plastic bottle factory in Warsaw which is run by the father of Polish artist Pawel Althamer, and one of several such portrait figures ranged around Neugerriemschneider’s impressive stand. They included Althamer himself and his father and brother as well as all the factory workers who helped to make the sculptures out of the plastic used in the factory, adding a sense of communal self-depiction to their strikingly anatomical appearance.

Julian Opie: Rod Walking, 2010 @ Hamburg Kennedy Photographs, New York

Scope, one of the many interesting if uneven subsidiary fairs, included this lenticular portrait of Rod, one of Julian Opie’s assistants, which is set up to give the appearance of his waking as you yourself walk past him. I happen to know the assistant in question – Rod Barton, who runs his own space at the weekends – and what struck me was how recognisably his presence was caught, despite the facial simplification and potentially shallow gimmick of linticular motion.

Kathleen Gilje: Lady Agnew of Blochnaw from 'Sargent's Women, Restored', 2008 @ Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, New York

American painter Kathleen Gilje, who has a background in the restoration of paintings, acknowledges the modern perspectves that such work inevitably brings in her versions of 48 portraits by John Singer Sargent, twelve of which were shown at Art Basel - you can see them all at She gave each of them new bodies, in poses she judged appropriate to their characters, taken from current-day life models. Their bracingly unVictorian – because non-mythological - nakedness asserts the underlying identity of the women shown playing their social and marital roles in Sargent’s originals.

Image credits: relevant galleries and artists.

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About Me

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Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom
I was in my leisure time Editor at Large of Art World magazine (which ran 2007-09) and now write freelance for such as Art Monthly, 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.