Saturday, 29 January 2011


Here's another round-up of recently commissioned writings additional to the main column: two profiles of favourites, a catalogue essay and three reviews.

Artist Overviews

Beheading of the Cockerel

Online Artist of the Week: Tereza Buskova (written for Saatchi Online magazine - Oct 10)

For a straightforwardly-presented film to work in a gallery context – rather than just turning the gallery into a cinema – it needs to have an immediate impact which draws the passing viewer in, whenever they arrive. The London-based Czech Tereza Buskova has made three films of a few minutes each – with a fourth in production – which achieve that with intoxicatingly effect.

The films present living tableaux, more like a linked succession of moving paintings than a story, in which traditional Bohemian rituals are seamlessly merged with artistic reinterpretations and interventions. They are wordless, their heady atmosphere heightened by haunting, cello-heavy soundtracks. Buskova makes the costumes and props, directs the actor-dancers and edits the film. She also makes screenprints from the action: the colour coordination and heraldic flatness of the scenes are well-suited to the still image.

Buskova’s first three films have given us her take on ‘Wedding Rituals’ (2007), which seem more foreboding than celebratory; the logical follow-up of a ‘Forgotten Marriage’ (2008); and ‘Spring Equinox’ (2009), her version of Easter rituals in the oldest village in Moravia. Slow-moving white-painted near-naked women, cardboard cut-out animals to represent fertility, and bizarre headwear recur. There are narrative strands of sorts but they’re mysterious: the men in Spring Equinox, for example, start out joyfully whipping maidens’ buttocks but end up blindfolded and stranded in a lake, at which they now lash out.

The effect is a kind of invisibly unified collage of the old and the new which freshens up the decadence of the past. But what lies beyond the mesmerising folk surrealism? The films assert the resilience of local cultures – these rituals have seen off communism – and also ask two interesting questions. First, what role should traditions play in the modern world? Best, Buskova implies, not to let them ossify in conservation, but to change them to suit the present. Second, what is the boundary between life and art? The melding of the two shows that the division is not such a simple one, and speaks for the art of living.

Next up will be the results of Buskova’s February filming of the carnival of Masopust, in which, she says, Bohemian villagers deal with their cold winter with a combination of drink, meat, processions, brass bands and grotesque behaviour. Sounds like just the thing for our economically tough times … Let the carnival begin!

Subtraction 9

Online Artist of the Week: Sebastian Lemm
(written for Saatchi Online magazine - Feb 11)

Over the past decade, New York-based German Sebastian Lemm has been a persuasive digital manipulator of the photographic image. His recent projects have used trees to combine the conceptual with the romantic in an unusual way; triggering associations with Caspar David Friedrich and the fairytale psychological parallels of forests, whilst at the same time playing off the modernist grid and questioning both the nature of representation and the representation of nature.

His ‘Schattenseite’ (‘Dark Side’) series show intensely flashlit scenes of tangled branches and leaves by night. But just as we wonder what to read in to the patterning so achieved, how to project the human onto nature in the romantic manner, we are tripped up by the realisation that the patterns contain unnatural contradictions, achieved through the combination of several photographic sources. The natural becomes the man-made, and we are reminded of how every aspect of the world is infused by our perceptual framework: we cannot, after all, pretend to a separated interpretative overlay.

The digital intervention is more obvious in the ‘Subtraction’ series, in which photographs of trees in summer are stripped of leaves, grass and sky so that only the trunk and branch superstructure remain. The effect is paradoxically wintery, while also suggesting both a minimalist concentration on essential form, and the possibility of an environmental disaster born of our interventions.
Lemm’s most recent set of images, ‘Strata’, makes the network of branches even more elaborate in all-over patterns built up through multiple exposures and layering. In a neat paradox, ‘Strata’ suggests the accumulation of memories whilst the means of production denies photography its usual straightforward link to the past: these are representations of what could never have been.

Lemm says he is interested in how the structures, patterns, repetitions and voids (both black and white) in his pictures make for interactions ‘which parallel human nature and relationships’. It turns out, then, that the escape from the memory built into a single photographic event triggers our pasts in a different way.

Catalogue Essay

Interior with Couple and Photographs

Andrew Hollis: Realities and Otherwise (written for show at ROLLO Contemporary, Feb-April 11)

It must be some time since it was any kind of news that photographs aren’t automatic carriers of truth – so much so that the natural tendency to assume that they are, which was probably general thirty years ago, has been largely unlearned. It’s the rise of digital technology which has altered popular instinct, but the case for scepticism doesn’t depend on such developments.

True, photographs have an indexical aspect which links them directly to some kind of origin in a way which cannot be said of painting. But the possible challenges to that kernel of truth are manifold. The growth of popular skepticism is probably linked to how the world might be distorted to the photographic purpose (take Alison Jackson’s photographs of celebrity look-alikes), or the image may be manipulated by airbrushing or Photoshopping. But the connotation of a photograph is also affected – in all innocence, as it were – by the ideological assumptions built in to how and why it is taken; by the time and physical conditions in which it is seen; by what the viewer brings to the experience; by a title, or a context within a wider body of work, both of which may point to particular meanings.

That much we know, then: there is plenty of space for subjectivity in the apparent objectivity of the photograph. Nor is it news that a painting derived from a photograph can point up all those issues by being explicit about a further transformation: that required to represent the image in the language of paint. We see that in the conceptual trick of photorealism, which feints as if to paint the world, but doesn’t: it paints a photograph instead, and by the sheer effort required to do so with the technical exactitude of Franz Gertsch, Richard Estes or John Salt, invests a greater sense of worth in the objects photographed than could the photograph itself. It’s a variant on Duchamp’s exploration of the found object, applied indirectly. We see a different effect in the paintings of Gerhard Richter, Michael Borremans or Luc Tuymans: they concentrate on the aura of the photograph rather than its indexicality; on its connections with memory and its own imperfections; with its rootedness in one time, but relationship to other times.

So, if all of that is given – not perhaps fully played out, but well established – and one comes across a new artist who paints from photographs, one is bound to ask: what’s different here? How has an artist who exploits all that – as Andrew Hollis does – built on the history of engagement with the nature of photography and the limitations of its truth?

Partly, I think, by the clarity of the conceptual framework Hollis brings to his work, neatly summarized in his statement that his paintings can be understood as ‘images of historical non-realities and images of non-historical realities’ . Partly through a diverting mixture of painting styles: sometimes informational, sometimes more gestural; sometimes like photographs as source, sometimes emphasizing the photograph as object, witness the curious cropping of the figures in Landscape with Women and Figure and Interior with Couple and Photographs (in which the couple are more photographic than the photographs). Partly through a distinctive colour world which tends towards a range of greys, consistent with black and white photographs; and a liking for pinks, hinting at the rosy viewpoints of nostalgia.

And partly – quite a large part, I think - by the surrealist-tinged edginess of unexpected actions or juxtapositions. Why are the women in Landscape with Women and Figure carrying a sort-of cut-out relief of a figure? Why are swans in Oil Barrels with Swans and Columns swimming along what looks like a river of oil? What is the role of the sinister structure in Children with Frame? One can imagine answers to do with female empowerment, environmental concerns and the nature of constraint in childhood, but the images escape such reductions. There are also striking mismatches between the main goings-on and their backgrounds. Why – as an extreme case – is a boat being rowed indoors in Pool with Rowers? Why is the wall in Interior with Couple and Photographs so obviously not the one on which such a couple would display their photographs? Sometimes the apparent mismatches exploit nods to art history: the ‘Children with Frame’ are set against what could be rusted Richard Serra sculptures, and there’s a suspicion of Richard Diebenkorn in the Exterior with Rowers.

But those, I think, are subsidiary aspects in this particular set of paintings. For me, the main event is how Hollis’s latest images gain their own peculiar resonance through his use of encyclopedias and yearbooks from the 1960’s, 1970’s and early 1980’s. ‘What interests me’, says Hollis, ‘about images like these is that they were originally used to describe something of significance of a specific time. In doing that, moreover, the sources doubly echo the modern reception of photography.

Firstly, because printed encyclopedias have, like photographs, a claim to authority, but one which has much less ready acceptance than it once did. The internet has largely taken over their reference function. And Wikipedia – a major factor in that usurpation – is well-known for its subjectivity and the occasional jocular or malevolent inclusion of rogue information. That’s part of the territory of user-generated content, but it also increases the popular awareness of how all knowledge is mediated and constructed in subjective ways. What never quite reached the man in the street through the writings of Foucault and Baudrillard has been picked up through Photoshop and Wikipedia.

Secondly, such encyclopedias have a more specific presence in time than literature does as a whole. Just as the indexical aspect of a photograph shows what things were like at a particular moment, a time which cannot be regained and - as Barthes suggested - imports an element of death to its photographic record, so the encyclopedia sets out what is judged to be important and true at a particular time. The information has its own kind of death – its future uselessness – built in.

The combination of two or three elements in each painting amplifies these effects. We don’t know how old the different elements are, and so how far out of date they have beome, and whether there are ‘mis-matches’ within a painting . That brings in the potential for more contrasts to add to the visibly curious conjunctions, but these contrasts in the degree of ongoing validity of the sources are not so much mysterious as impenetrable. We know they might be there, but we can’t distinguish them.

That resonant double parallel, heightened by conjunctions, is, I think, what gives Hollis’s work its distinctiveness and potency. To illustrate that, it’s worth tracking through the sheer number of different times depicted in a painting such as Water Flowers with Boat. Starting from the here and now of the viewer, we go back to the still-recent antecedent of Hollis producing the image, back further to the publication times of the encyclopedias used as sources, back a little further to the taking of the photograph reproduced in the encyclopedia, and then back again to the time in the nineteenth century when painting itself was emerging from its primary function of mimicking appearances – for there must be a reference to Monet’s waterlillies, supported by the peculiar purple coloration which echoes the cataract-induced colour distortions in Monet’s late work.

Hollis’s paintings, then, aren’t just theoretical ways to examine the legacy of the painted image, nor just provokingly mysterious conjunctions of images – though they are both – they’re surprisingly complex voyages in time across the history of how images are constructed and perceived.


Mike Nelson (written for ArtUS - Nov 10)
Tate Britain | London

It’s a decade since Mike Nelson built his seminal work, 'The Coral Reef', at Matt’s Gallery in London’s East End. It has now been acquired by the Tate and put on display through the end of 2011, a welcome adjunct to Nelson’s selection as Britain’s representative at next year’s Venice Biennale.

'The Coral Reef' is a labyrinthine, 15-room installation in the style of William Burroughs’s “interzones”- hallucinatory spaces between worlds or ideas. Here they take the form of waiting rooms, which Nelson first had perfectly replicated and then scuffed back to a seedy, dilapidated state-–originally inspired, he says, by a South London minicab office. Various, potentially conflicting, ideologies are symbolized by the contents of these ostensibly just-abandoned rooms. The occupants seem to be what Nelson terms “modern primitives,” or figures at the margins of capitalist society, such as revolutionaries, hoodlums, evangelists, and drug users. Even when you know roughly what to expect, it’s easy to get disoriented here, an experience exacerbated by finding a room duplicated or having to leave via a fake fire exit that would normally set off an alarm.

Since 'The Coral Reef' was made in 2000, Nelson has been frequently approached to make similar places to get lost in. Projects in Venice, New York, Istanbul, Sydney, San Francisco, and Copenhagen have enhanced his reputation while responding more directly to their geographic and institutional surroundings than perhaps did this prototype, which could then be seen as the originating myth or global template for more locally grounded projects of this kind.

As Nelson says, “a work such as this relies on the spaces in between what is actually there. It acts like a catalyst, coercing you into imaginative space. These residues of suggested narratives pull you into several spheres--psychological, sociopolitical, and anthropological.” To achieve this effect, the artist employs a wide range of influences--most obviously, fantastic fiction (Borges, Ballard, Lem), outsider subcultures (Nelson’s early works were presented as made by a biker gang), current political concerns, and the history of installation art (clearly Nauman and the Kabakovs). Consequently, Nelson’s work can be experienced both on a visceral, immediate level, and by tracking down his intellectual sources and attempting a more elaborate reading.

Crime, the black economy, the growing underclass, and antisocial aspects of the Internet are all up for grabs in the teeming ecology of 'The Coral Reef', which, as its name suggests, accommodates multiple, if often fragile, life forms and strategies. Much of what seems to be going on in these rooms deserves our sympathy, and there is a sense that, as Nelson puts it, all of us are “lost in a world of lost people.” The work’s vacant atmosphere, augmented by such props as a gun and a mask, or, in the heroin user’s room, drugs and pictures of horses hanging on the wall, suggests a yearning for escape - but the boxed-in arrangement does more to entrap than to liberate.

Various narratives can be constructed around 'The Coral Reef', but it is ultimately open-ended, in that there is no single cause from which Nelson’s scenarios are derived or by means of which they can be forensically “solved.” In that respect, the original work was remarkably prescient of the atmosphere of abandonment, foreboding, and paranoia that rapidly followed the events of 9/11. I found myself playing an undercover cop when visiting Tate Britain: these are surely the very places one would need to infiltrate to find out what plots are being hatched. As powerful as it ever was, this is the return of a masterpiece.

Urs Fischer (written for ArtUS - Jan 11)
Sadie Coles | New Burlington Place, London

Sadie Coles opened her new, additional space in London’s West End with an Urs Fischer installation named “Douglas Sirk” (through December 11), a collection of mirrored cubes silk-screened with images of miscellaneous objects and sundry wall items. The multifaceted Swiss artist is best known for blowing holes in white cubes, gibes or digs that reveal unforeseen perspectives and a kind of hidden beauty. Fischer’s work is the typical late-century meld of influences, combining an interest in letting object and material interact to see what happens and a somewhat childish ambition to get away with murder. It all adds up to a certain amount of biting the hand that feeds him.

Far from mocking the new space, however, “Douglas Sirk” seemed set on a flattering imitation of life. Over 30 large, variously sized mirrored cubes and rectangular forms reflected the surroundings and each other, expanding everything to infinity. Most have photographic transfers on all four sides and top, resulting in a dizzying to-and-fro between object and image. The larger-than-life depictions fill their containers, mostly grouped in double pairs, to the brim, affording such odd conjunctions as fox masks and chairs, playing cards and nuts or bolts, shopping carts and ducklings (which from certain angles threatened to spill over into a gaggle of them). If there were links between the cubed subjects, either within the groupings or overall, these were matters for serendipitous discovery in transit. They certainly didn’t feel purposely imposed.

Plenty of recent installation work plays with scale or space, the ambiguities between two and three dimensions, and doubling or seriality. “Douglas Sirk” ticked all of these off the list, whilst also orchestrating a collision between kitsch sensibilities and geometric minimalism. You indeed could identify many of the same games in Fischer’s numerous references to other artists: most obviously, Koons’s high-finish fetishes, Oldenburg’s scaling up of the everyday, Robert Morris’s mirrored cubes, and Pistoletto’s distorting mirror images. Or else, you could think in terms of genre: still life painting, loaded fruit in _vanitas_ mode, or fashion photography. The sheer pileup of themes and insinuations was impressive.

Less obvious perhaps is the possible reference to another artist, one who used still life elements to create paintings to be read as cityscapes, but whose work is more about the spaces and relations between objects than the objects themselves. Could it be that Giorgio Morandi, who once said of his arrangements of bottles that “nothing is more abstract than reality,” finds a fitting home in Fischer’s remark, apropos a comparable installation of his, that “the mirror surface is irrelevant. What’s interesting to me is the absence of the object.”

Absent presence aside, there was still plenty of room on the walls to show six large paintings from two recent series, four from “Monsters,” which combine digitally screwed up faces of men with fruit, and two from “Star Lights,” which engineer encounters between archetypal 1950s screen sirens and a giant fork or spoon. In lots of ways these wall works are the most Sirkian of the bunch, superficially testifying to the filmmaker’s sentimental Technicolor melodramas, underscoring the repressions and psychological traumas of 1950s America. Yet Fischer’s cubes equally hint at Sirk’s love of mirrors, wherein only the vanity and deception of life shines through. The Sadie Coles show certainly captured the right nuance of Sirkian melodrama: but did it contain the titular critique of social conformity, or just its denial in idle reflection?

Oleg Tselkov: Work, 2006

'Squaring the Circle' at the Aktis Gallery, London - through 31 March (review for ARTnews, Feb 11)

The Aktis Gallery, specializing in Russina nonconformists and Soviet artists working in exile, recently joined a growing Russian presence in London’s art scene. This show provides a fascinating overview of four painters, tagged “non-conformist,” who were subterranean presences in Moscow in the 1960s: Dmitry Krasnopevtsev (1925–95), Oscar Rabin, Oleg Tselkov, and Vladimir Yankilevsky. The last three were allowed to leave the USSR in the ’70s and ’80s, and now live in Paris. Yet this exhibition, featuring a mix of their Soviet and subsequent paintings, shows the recent work is very much of a piece with the earlier output.

The nonconformity of Krasnopevtsev, Rabin, and Tselkov was relatively modest: it lay in their refusal to follow the official path of Socialist Realism in the service of the state. That meant that they were not publicly exhibited, but there’s little sign of political subversion here, nor any pushing of esthetic boundaries. Krasnopevtsev gives us gloomily lit and broodily atmospheric still lifes. Rabin makes equally dark landscapes, often incorporating a still life element, such as a vase of flowers. Tselkov depicts implausibly lumpish men—perhaps representing the monsters which communism has made of men, but more likely part of a personal language the artist evolved.

Only Yankilevsky, who was associated with Bulatov and Kabakov, could be described as unorthodox in his art. He’s best known for the collages he made from street-scavengings, in the ’60s, but is represented here by some rather inert still life paintings from the late ’50s that scarcely hint at what was to follow. Two quirkily sexualized series from this decade, ceramics with designs that reference the pubic triangle and energetic paintings that combine cartoonishly contorted nudes with a range of personal symbols, better convey this artist’s restlessness and confrontational stance, which opposes social constraints and officialdom in all forms.

No comments:

Post a comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.

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.