Monday, 29 October 2012


I'm quite often struck by coincidences as I tour the galleries. Perhaps it's the zeitgeist, perhaps it's just the logic of chance at work given how much is on. But, for example, both Sue Collis (at Seventeen) and Bedwyr Williams (at Ceri Hand) feature seashell-encrustation as perhaps the highlights of two excellent shows; my favourite up-and-coming Dutch photographer, Fleur van Dodewaard, seems to be having a 'London moment' all of a sudden - following her Beers Lambert appearance she's now in two highly recommended group shows at Brancolini Grimaldi and at Flowers East; photography in general seems to be having a moment, not just at the Tate Modern and the Barbican but more surprisingly at the National Gallery; and there seems to be the beginnings of an 'art on shelves' trend in the following. But first, an Eve and Adam of sorts...  no wonder we end up in a garden (of sorts).

David Austen: 'Eve'
With An Apple I will Astonish @ Large Glass, 392 Caledonian Road - Caledonian Road & Barnesbury

To 12 Jan:

Charlotte Schepke invites much of the work shown in her relaxed space just south of Pentonville Prison. Jeff McMillan, David Batchelor and Alison Turnbull's are among the juiciest of 40-odd contributions to the subject of apples ('they run through our culture like a small, firm promise in our hands' , says  AL Kennedy’s text).  There’s plenty of wit, and I particularly like David Austen's economical conflation of three myths - Adam and Eve, William Tell, and William S. Burroughs' accidental shooting of his wife in a drunken re-enactment of the second - which just catches a nervous half smile before the fatal moment.

Bjarne Melgaard & Ruben Lopez: Untitled 

Bjarne Melgard: A House to Die In @ ICA, Nash House, The Mall - Central

To 18 Nov:

But of course! The revved-up style and discomforting subjects (stress, depression, drugs…) of the Australian-born Dutch-trained US-dwelling Norwegian Bjarne Melgaard are close enough to outsider tropes that it makes seamless sense for him to collaborate with eight untrained artists, several of  whom face problematic lives. They’ve painted over his initial work in styles inspired by his, then made sculptures inspired by the paintings and shown a burning orange mock-up interior of a house ‘to commit suicide in’, the external prototype for which is downstairs. Cue playful platypuses, parti-coloured portraits and pouting pudenda-lips.  

One Language Traveller - Set #5, 3 2012 - Clay, Acrylic, wood, glass
FOS: Watchmaker @ Max Wigram Gallery, 106 New Bond St - Mayfair

To 15 Dec:

Apparently some visitors have turned back not realising that what seems to be the door into a storeroom (awaiting the next art fair, perhaps) is actually the entrance to an immersive installation which plays off New Bond Street’s clockmaking tradition to explore time both natural (a salt ‘clock’ left to age geologically, a film set at the North Pole) and man-made (said watches). Danish artist FOS (Thomas Paulsen under a made-up corporate-sounding acronym) is interested in the effect of spatial aesthetics, and this black-curtained scenario conjures an atmosphere at the same time as juggling several themes. Fake archaeology meets problems of translation – linguistically and inter-culturally - in the 'One Language Traveller' series.

'The End of Anger'  -  mirrored tile, black soap, wax, books, oyster shells, shea butter, vinyl
Rashid Johnson: Shelter @ the South London Gallery, 65-67 Peckham Rd - Camberwell

Some sort of post-disaster group therapy session is proposed by Rashid Johnson's installation 'Shelter'. Johnson covers the couches in zebra skin, upends and abuses them, burns wine on the carpet, add quotes from his visual and cultural vocabulary (mirrored shelving units as paintings, an Art Blakey record, gunsites of ambiguous directionality). He also quotes Pollock in black abstracts made from charred flooring, raised to the wall then healed and cleansed with black soap and shea butter  (a salve obtained from an African tree). All is overseen by eight pot plants among the rafters. 

Ruairiadh O'Connell installation view
Zabludowicz Invites Ruairiadh O’Connell (to 18 Nov) and Leah Capaldi (22 Nov-2 Dec) @ the Zabludowicz Collection, 176 Prince of Wales Rd – Chalk Farm

Matthew Darbyshire, unusually for him, includes no shelves in his installation in Anita Zabludowicz's main run of rooms.  Ru O’Connell, known for his emotionally charged mis-use of unusual materials, juggles domesticity, commerce and art in the side-chapel: he sculpturally suspends latex ‘paintings’ cast from super-fresco wallpapers with added motifs from ambient computer displays (which communicate fluctuating information, most typically on stock markets), but themselves change only with the light, interacting beautifully with the mildly-stained glass windows. Next up in the space, performance artist Leah Capaldi will be making interesting use of props (Shelves? Who knows?).

Tess Jaray: Mapping the Unseeable @ the Piper Gallery, 18 Newman St - Fitzrovia

Megan Piper has the admirably unorthodox aim of supporting not the latest young discoveries, but still-developing artists with at least 40 years exhibiting experience.  This year’s lead RA Summer Show selector Tess Jaray has indeed followed a long and consistently interesting track through geometry, pattern and WG Sebald to reach these meditative yet snappy computer-aided evocations of place and mood. They use laser-cut mesh as the uppermost of two separate layers, drawing the viewer in close to peep through an intricately architectural lattice to the underlying colour it activates.  Doors, mosques and Malevich act as inspirations.

Cinthia Marcelle: Automóvel (Automobile) @ Sprovieri, 23 Heddon St - Mayfair

To 24 Nov:

Brazilian multi-media artist Cinthia Marcelle is particularly good at making actions reverberate on a broad social scale. I loved 'The Century' (2011), in which all sorts of street objects are hurled anonymously left to right and then back from right to left. The new 7 minute ' Automobile' here has a related logic: a fixed camera monitors the flow of vehicles, and when the traffic  jams everyone  pushes - while others impatiently hoot. The stop-start nature of the traffic is captured by gaps which darken the screen, but the cacophony goes on. Night falls, and the vehicles are still using up much more effort than they are meant to save...

Ed Atkins: ‘Us Dead Talk Love’ at the Chisenhale Gallery, 6 Chisenhale Rd -

To Nov 11:

Ed Atkins’ clinically pungent videos combine writing worthy of separate publication with the use of stock imagery, putting all the pressure on the edit and soundtrack.  Here a cadaverous head (made with software mimicking Atkins’ own expressions to camera) seems to ask itself – across two screens – the questions it wanted to have asked a lover. The 37 minutes of dialogue, built on the memory of an eyelash trapped beneath the foreskin, range across the biology of hair; the possibility of posthumous arousal; the eyelash as a brush to draw itself; and the foreskin as a tomb. Think Vito Acconci meets Laurie Anderson, all in a laptop.

Giuseppe Penone: Intersecting Vision @ Gagosian, 17-19 Davies StMayfair

To 24 Nov:  

If spring was the season of Alighierro Boetti (five London shows), autumn looks like the turn of his Arte Povera confrere Guiseppe Penone – and none the worse for that! Haunch of Venison has provided a drawn warm-up to the Whitechapel’s year-long commission and Gagosian’s perfect small gallery showing. You can see it all from outside, but that would be to miss the way the branches at the end of the tree form coalesce into faces with branch-ray vision in dialogue with the large eyes made from thorns as Penone carries forward his patent play between light-nourished tree growth and our light-enabled perception thereof.

Sarah Lucas: Untitled, 2012
Sarah Lucas: Situation Franz West @ Sadie Coles, First Floor, 4 New Burlington Place - Central

To Feb 2013 (various phases):

The bigger Gagosian has a splendid Franz West memorial, but the latest phase of Sarah Lucas’ year-round curation of a room above the main Sadie Coles space – itself the most innovative gallery model of the year - catches his spirit even better. It combines classic West with Lucas’ own work (including cigarette portraits of her Austrian friend and Gary Hume posing for updates of the naked-with-genital-cover photos from 20 years ago), a film of the two in conversation no less interesting for being silent (you can take that two ways, and both apply) and an unfinished sculpture by West which was ‘completed’  à la Lucas by her applying to it a fried egg found in his studio. 

Abbas Akhavan: Study for a Garden @ the Delfina Foundation, 29/31 Catherine Place - Victoria

The Delfina Foundation has acquired the house next to its present premises and  allowed the Toronto-based Iranian artist Abbas Akhavan the run of it before it’s gutted. Akhavan has seized the chance to move the garden inside: trees, waterfalls, soil, ivy growing through the carpet, a leak make for atmospheric barriers to visitors and set up conversations with original features such as floral wallpaper. Careful examination reveals, though, not only that those features are by no means as naturally installed as might appear, but also that they’re charged with echoes of political violence.

Images courtesy of the relevant artists and galleries + Jason Mandella (Melgaard) +
Tim Bowditch (O'Connell) + Christa Holka (Akhavan)

Sunday, 21 October 2012


The State of Photography: a Snapshot at Frieze


                                         (DRAFT MATERIAL FOR 'STATE' MAGAZINE)


One cannot track definite trends through what happens to be shown at Frieze, but it does provide an interesting snapshot. There was less photographic work than usual, but still enough to ensure that anyone predicting that the physical photograph would disappear with digitalisation is far from being proved right.  As if to emphasise that physicality, there was lots of ‘doing things to photos’: cutting and collaging them, painting on them, half-burning them (Douglas Gordon) or combining them in unusual ways (Geoffrey Farmer rotated them in a pot, Tris Vonna-Michell fanned them out along the length of a walk-along audio track). I start with a subtle example of that trend. Even among the more traditionally presented images there was tremendous variety, and it’s probably easier to summarise what there wasn’t: little narrative, not much pure fantasy – almost everything was grounded in the real – and hardly any camera-less product (darkroom abstractions, photograms and the like). There are many ways to categorise what was on view, but here are some headings which, incidentally, span every continent…


Doing Things to Photos

Jonathan Owen: 'Untitled', 2012 at the Ingeby Gallery (Edinburgh)

Edinburgh-based Liverpudlian Jonathan Owen uses a rubber to subvert photographs found in books - but not only does he delicately remove part of the image, he manages the erasure so that the ghostly traces of remaining ink form a quite distinct image layered into the original. You might think of it as the obsessive artisanal equivalent to hacking a computer programme so that it still operates, yet delivers a different result.  Here he removes a large part of a lounging woman in favour of the sofa’s leaf pattern, so achieving the gentlest of dismemberments. 

Also seen doing things to photos: Meredith Sparks, Henrik Olesen

Records of Performance

Seung Yul OH: 'The Ability to Blow Themselves Up', 2012 at ONE AND J. Gallery (Seoul)

There were plenty of examples of photography as a record of artistic performance.  One of the freshest was New Zealand based Korean Seung Yul Oh’s four colourful portraits of people largely obscured by the balloons he’d asked them to blow up. They were exhibited alongside a rapid-cut film in which the balloons burst with magnified sound and to the copious surprise of the puffers. Party games perhaps, but with implications of sexual climax and suicide bombing, they made for an edgily amusing installation. Balloons, by the way, emerged as something of a photo-theme of their own, with Scott King and Jurgen Teller also focusing on them.


Also: Mika Rottenberg, Paul McCarthy


Digital Alteration



Lucas Blalock: 'Untitled', 2012 at Runciman Crucible (Los Angeles) 


It may be common enough to edit digitally these days, but it is rarely a prominent feature of the work. Young LA-based Lucas Blalock does foreground his process, making images which treat camera and computer as equal tools. The ‘Frame’ section for new galleries included his post-cubist doubling of a woman with fan, an image in which pink rubbers took on sculptural presence, and this once-bare tree, to which Blalock added an improbable profusion of dying leaves to form, perhaps, an arboreal protest against deforestation.  


Also:  Thomas Ruff, Scott King




Teresa Margolles: 'El Testigo', 2011 at Peter Kilchmann (Zurich)


Whilst plenty of photographs still show the classic subjects as landscape, portrait and still life, they tend to incorporate a back-story. It’s easy to suspect that’s the case  when Teresa Margolles takes a picture, as she’s worked as an autopsist and typically refers to the violent happenings in the Mexican drug capital of Ciudad Juárez. So it proves here, as what may look an unassuming tree on a beautiful day proves to be from a set of images depicting locations at which murders are said to have occurred.


Also: Florian Maer-Aichen, Carlos Garaicoa





Zanele Muholi: 'Mini Mbatha, Durban, Glebelands, Jan. 2010' at Stevenson 

(Cape Town / Johannesburg)


People remain at the heart of much photographic work. South African Zanele Muholi, who featured in the recent Documenta, is a lesbian activist who highlights the black queer community for whom ‘Beulahs’ is slang for ‘beauties’. She herself is responsible for the subjects' fashion looks in this particular group of portraits. The use of combs as headdresses of a sort makes assertive sense – how circular and yet how convenient; and what a neat way to play the game of regulation (of hair and more) while undermining it with subversive spirit.  


Also seen: Pierre Gonnord, Rashid Johnson,



Adi Nes: 'Untitled (The Village)' at Somer Contemporary Art (Tel Aviv)

Documentary photography was prevalent at Frieze, but rarely straightforward. The 13 images of a fictional village in Adi Nes’s project (now on view at the Jewish Museum in Camden) stage archetypal scenes with mythic and art historical echoes as – in his words ‘a metaphor for Israel as a small place built after a great tragedy’. The scenes focus on moments on the cusp of something happening: thus villagers prepare to shoot at an unseen target, soldiers are about to tell a mother that her soldier son died in action and - as shown at Frieze - a young man in a symbolically dark and flooded space is set to interact with representations of the Three Fates who will control his destiny.

Also seen: Nan Goldin,  Xu Zhen


Conceptual play 


John Stezaker: still from ‘Horse’, 2012 at Galerie Gisela Capitain (Cologne)

Among works using photography for primarily conceptual ends, a sequenced collage of 3,600 horses standing still constituted the first film by the 2012 Deutsche Börse Borse Photography Prize Winner John Stezaker, who sourced them, in typical fashion,  from old yearbooks of the British Race Horse Association. Posed similarly enough to call to mind the typographical approach of the Bechers, they flash by life-size at a rate of 24 per second in a sort of reversal of Muybridge’s use of serial photography to analyse their movement. Soon I found the ever-morphing backgrounds taking centre stage, suggesting the horse as indicator of social standing, of a place in the world, as much as for itself.  

Also: Shannon Ebner, Thomas Demand



Fiona Tan: 'Vox Populi London' (detail), 2012 at Frith Street Gallery (London)

Indeed, photo-typologies have become something of a tradition. London is the focus of the fifth and final instalment of Indonesian-born, Australian-raised Dutch artist Fiona Tan’s ‘Vox Populi’ series, in which she borrows photo albums – themselves an increasingly nostalgic item - in a given city, scans a sample of images and arranges them by theme. Here a spread of 250 (also on show now at the Photographer’s Gallery) made for an addictive collective portrait raising such questions as: how do our underlying rituals change over time? What distinguishes this as London rather than Tan’s previously-covered Norway, Sydney, Tokyo and Switzerland?  How is the personal changed by being made public?

Also seen: Hans-Peter Feldmann, Zoe Leonard

The Status of the Photograph


Josephine Pryde: ‘SCALE XIII’, 2012 at Reena Spaulings Fine Art (New York)


Not a few photographers used their work to explore the status and characteristics of the medium itself.  The viewers were the guinea pigs, too, in Berlin-based English photographer Josephine Pryde’s use of the reassuringly furry animals – seen frolicking in  the left-overs of an art installation – to contrast with the starker and more severe aesthetic normally associated with the documentary photographic sequence.  Does Pryde mean to uncover the menace in cuteness through their titular Scale (over three feet high)? Or to criticise  the disproportionate attention we give to keeping – and posting online pictures of – such sweetly anthropomorphic pets?


Also:  Roe Ethridge, Christopher Williams


The Painter’s Photograph

Marilyn Minter: 'Honeydew', 2012 at Salon 94 (New York)


It’s often interesting to see how painters use photographs at an angle to their primary practice. Marilyn Minter came to prominence – relatively late – through her scaled up paintings based her own photographs of intensely rendered details such as feet, lips and eyelashes. She deconstructs the male fetishisation which substitutes part for whole and yet plays the glamour both ways. The photographs have taken on an increasing life of their own, and – as in this face fractured into multiple small inversions behind liquid and glass - are becoming ever-more abstract as she exploits her audience’s recognition factor to push the style further. 

Also seen: Thomas Zipp, Gunther Forg


Painters Use Photography


Karel Funk: 'Untitled #56', 2012 at 303 Gallery 


Of course painters in turn use photographs in many ways, most obviously as a tool towards hyper-realist work.  Canadian Karel (say ‘Carl’) Funk paints half a dozen exacting heads per year. They’re based on his own multiple photographs of the subject, which he investigates through hundreds of semi-translucent layers of acrylic.   Typically, 'Untitled #56' catches the spiritual intensity of renaissance portraiture, but avoids any direct engagement between subject and viewer. That switches our attention to the abstract qualities, and to the implications of an unknowable inner life.

Also: Mustapha Hulusi, David Brian Smith

Images courtesy of the relevant artists + galleries

Wednesday, 17 October 2012


Winnipeg Choice

Marcel Dzama: still from Death Disco Dance

I've just had the chance to visit Winnipeg (population 700,000, Canada’s 8th largest), which is an unusual city: set in the middle of the prairies it's the world’s coldest and also one of the most isolated - 500 miles from the nearest city, Minneapolis. Those factors, together with an eccentric history and an atypically large proportion of aboriginals (10% against an all-Canada average of 4%), make it a distinctive place to make art. Cheap rents,and good support from the Federal Government, the state of Manitoba and the city itself help ensure that there are plenty of artists. I visited at a good time, catching surveys of current trends at the main public institutions (‘My Winnipeg’ at the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art and ‘Winnipeg Now’ at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, guest curated by Plug In's Meeka Walsh and Robert Enright) and an all night opening of galleries for  the ‘Nuit Blanche’ of 29 September. What’s more, the artists all know each other, so it’s not hard to make your way round between people and studios. The following sets out what the three arguably most famous Winnipeg artists were showing, and provides fuller profiles of some whom I found particularly interesting.


Marcel Dzama, the best-known of the former members of Royal Art Lodge collective (1996-2008), now lives in New York but returns to Winnipeg regularly. He featured in both ‘My Winnipeg’ and ‘Winnipeg Now’, but showed none of the drawings which brought him to fame with their root-beer palette of nostalgic characters engaged in mysterious activities. Rather, there was an overview of where he’s taken those sources recently. One room staged ‘On the Banks of the Red River’, a locally-set tour de force ceramic diorama of bat shooting. Other work explored chess as both a dance of possibilities and a representation of violence and war. There were two large sculptures; the 15 minute film ‘A Game of Chess’, made with a Mexican ballet company; and a separate installation of 27 televisions each playing the same brief ‘Death Disco Dance’  of choreographed chess action to an alternating sound track of drums and bird song – see   for a fuller flavour of that.

Guy Maddin, Seances, 2012. Performance, live filmmaking. 
Cult film director Guy Maddin’s  ‘My Winnipeg’ (2007) is described by local curator Meeka Walsh as ‘defining who we are’. It’s a bittersweet tribute by way of Maddin’s attempt to ‘film a way out of here’ through a mixture of implausible truth (the town hall architecture hides an elaborate Masonic code), metaphorically appropriate untruth (an illicit city lies beneath the official city, complete with a network of unofficial roads) and staged re-enactment of episodes from Maddin’s life. For ‘Winnipeg Now’ he installed a recreation of his own childhood bedroom as the set for some of the 136 films to be shot in the ambitious ‘Séance’ project.  Maddin aims to ‘remake’ – in a day each – films of which the originals have been lost, treating what’s known of them as scriptural texts which he’s free to adopt and make versions of, typically through dream sequences which have only metaphorical links to the original. It’s also a way, says Maddin, ‘of seeing a movie that I was dying to see but that I’d never been able to. I’d make my own four minute version’.

Native Fires, 1996

Wanda Koop, a daughter of Russian immigrants who moved to Winnipeg as a child, has been awarded the country’s highest civilian honour, the Order of Canada. Over thirty years, her paintings and environments have generated a particularly strong sense of the space of the prairies, often combined with geometric intrusions suggesting the iimpact of modernity. I remembered her haunting landscape ‘Native Fires’ from the Parisian instantiation of ‘Winnipeg Now’, but it’s a richer painting given local context: the leading church, state and business buildings in Winnipeg loom out of the darkness beyond the Red River, beside which the flames lit by aboriginal peoples take on a tearful appearance suggesting that they’ve been curtailed, if not yet fully doused, by what lies behind them.  ‘First Nations are still making fires along the river bank’, Koop has said, but ‘as the city encroaches and the river walkways are being expanded, and for as long as I can remember the police would come along and tell them to put their fires out’.

Michael Dudeck


At just 28, Michael Dudeck is one to watch: he’s four years into the project ‘Religion’: the multi-part creation of an alternative arctic world complete with its own language, fauna, religion and ceremonies. British readers might think of Charles Avery or Nathaniel Mellors for a flavour of the wild ambition, though Joseph Beuys must be a more relevant influence.  Dudeck’s own performative role is as a queer Jewish witchdoctor, a part which, he happily agreed, he also enacts in his flamboyant ‘real life’ mode. As such, he’s part of the refreshingly mainstream gay identity of several Winnipeg artists: among his forerunners are Kent Monkman, Noam Gronick and Shawna Dempsey & Lori Millan - the latter pair were the Lesbian National Park Rangers who kept me under control during the long ‘Nuit Blanche’ of 29 September, when Winnipeg’s main galleries were open through to 5 a.m.

Esed (detail)
From Dudeck’s perspective, ‘existing myths of origin didn’t cut it’, so his aim as a shaman in contemporary culture is to invent a queer religion and pre-history which restyles his own experiences. That intersects with the role of gender hybrids in many aboriginal myths, including those of Canada’s northern provinces: Dudeck talks of how ‘the hardships implicit in being blessed and burdened with a more complex framework’ were once recognised as holy.    

The Qedishtu (detail)
‘Winnipeg Now’ included ghost-white sculptures of such Hyperborean creatures as excessively-antlered deer ‘doomed to wander in isolation for a thousand years across the haunting Age of Nothingness’; and a hermaphrodite baboon characterised by two ‘extensive serpentine phalli which are said to contain a second brain at their tips’. Dudeck also performed ‘Exegesis’, a 40 minute service of sacred texts chanted hypnotically to simple Moog backings. The hymns tell of prophecy, ritual death and spiritual hibernation, yet still manage to steal from pop songs. 

Descriptions probably run the risk of making ‘Religion’ sound a little ludicrous, and Dudeck does play with that – but in practice his vision coheres into a compelling demonstration of the power of interpretative frameworks.  

Sarah Anne Johnson

Party Boat

Sarah Anne Johnson brings an unnerving single-mindedness to how she seeks to understand her own most formative experiences through art. That takes her well beyond her origins as a photographer – one who left Winnipeg temporarily to train at Yale under such as Crewdson, Simmons and diCorcia. 

In a working method which puts me in mind of serial monogamy, Johnson has immersed herself in a student holiday job planting trees in deforested parts of Manitoba; eco-volunteering in the Galapagos; the life story of her grandmother, who was mistreated and made the subject of CIA mind control experiments when mentally ill; and the experience of the far north, joining a scientific expedition to sail through the arctic pack ice. Next up she’s planning to explore how she herself deals with intimacy, by using other couples making love as her surrogates.

Sarah Anne Johnson in her studio with dog Kitty
One unifying approach across these projects has been an urge to expand the photographic record by inhabiting the experience afresh, whether by modelling the site where things happened; using figurines to depict scenes not photographed, and photographing them as substitutes (which Johnson finds can have more emotional reality then ‘the real’ would have had); or by intensifying or re-purposing photographs’ effects by chemical or painted interventions. 

Untitled, Fireworks and schooner

Not only did Johnson paint onto her ‘Arctic Wonderland’ photographs, magicking up the  spirit of being there in a way which yet another photographic snowscape would struggle to do, she went on (for ‘Winnipeg Now’) to make a sculptural installation derived from one of those altered images. That’s a sort of re-inhabitation squared, and a 3D to 2D to 3D process which arrives at a new way of unifying photography, painting and sculpture. The environmental paradox whereby she was visiting the arctic in order to set up a critique of human activity there is at the heart of ‘Untitled, Fireworks and schooner’. Assorted plastic refuse makes up a firework-come-rainbow effect which hovers over a wooden boat inside which we can see the crew feeding the engine with wood. In the context of Johnson’s overall practice, it’s a psychologically charged scene which struck me as some kind of adult equivalent of Lacan’s mirror phase, whereby a child identifies with an external image as a means of separating out her own place in the world.

Simon Hughes

Happy Place
Winnipeg itself has a limited commercial art infrastructure – almost all of the work made in the city is sold elsewhere – but the biggest such space, Mayberry Fine Art, was showing Simon Hughes when I visited. He attended some classes alongside Royal Art Lodge members, but never quite joined the group (which he likened, convincingly, to a rock band).  
Simon Hughes in his studio overlooking the Red River
Hughes works across a wide range, including video, various styles of painting and collage, and the investigation of his children’s drawings. He tends to pursue particular strands within that mix across several years. Thus, he’s just coming to the end of a ten year cycle of precision-drawn watercolours of imagined buildings. They combine modernist architecture with the vernacular of log cabins, pushing the latter to implausible extreme, and are populated by stuck-on people representative of Canada’s history, including recurring participants from a set of stickers sold with the national flag. Hughes sees the buildings as representing the conflicted mental states which the occupants may be enacting.

Fractured Monochrome 4

Although watercolour has been Hughes’ default medium – he says he likes how it mimics the necessity in life of ‘living with your mistakes’ – he has moved to oil on plywood for the latest of his series, which seem to start from abstraction and end up being taken over by the ice which, for much of the year, covers the Red River beside his studio. Close up, the detail of differently-hued sections through the ice provides a challenge dealt with by a satisfyingly elaborate vinyl-tape-and-paint technique, which also echoes Guy Maddin’s metaphors of layering. 

Hughes’ strands do intersect, and ‘Newlyweds’ features the supposed unions both of his stock characters and also of an iceberg which has taken on the geometric angularity of a building. Again, metaphorical readings are available out of the contrasts of natural / traditional versus artificial / modern, which would suggest environmental or social critique, but Hughes’ world feels essentially optimistic: there’s an undercurrent of humour, the ice is attractively patterned, and the characters maintain their standard cheeriness whatever might be going on… though that, of course, is to stay on the surface.

Neil Farber & Michael Dumontier

Library (detail)
Michael Dumontier and Neil Farber didn’t stop collaborating when Winnipeg’s famous Royal Art Lodge collective ended in 2008: they carried on working together at least every Wednesday, but as a new duo rather than a continuation of the group. Dumontier’s solo work brings a minimalist simplicity to the conceptual slapstick which was typical of the Lodge. Farber on his own is a restless and hyper-productive experimenter from a base of spontaneous drawing, using, abusing and combining a dizzying range of paints, inks and collage elements in the service of the next wittily mordant apercu.

Neil Farber in action at his table

Together, they’ve made book-ready series in which Farber, who has a way with the deadpan skewing of words, adds the texts to Dumontier’s drawings. The latest is ‘Animals with Sharpies’, in which a menagerie of caricature animals take turns to scrawl comically self-aware statements using a realistically-rendered ‘Sharpie’ felt tip pen, held in their beak or mouth. Many are caught frustratingly short of finishing their sentence, so adding an extra opportunity to puncture expectations.

Another long-running joint format is small paintings on wood – some no more than an inch square – which are lined up along ledge-like shelves.  These use a fluid acrylic craft paint which yields both an unusual colour range and a non-shiny finish which suits the clean and efficient presentation of visual ideas. Dumontier says he likes working with Farber because, in those works where the painting is primarily a vehicle for the text, he makes the image 'as a set up for the written word, and it's always a nice surprise to see Neil's responses. In the rest of our work, we write the text together, passing back and forth ideas, often rewriting until we get it right. Over time, my solo practice has moved further and further from the collaborative work, and I'm happy to have this practice with Neil that's completely different.'

From 'Animals with Sharpies'
The first part of ‘My Winnipeg’, at Plug In, features a project which brings those approaches together. The 15 foot wide ‘Library’ (2008-12) is made up of hundreds of matt-on-wood paintings, varying in size, but each depicting one book, and translating the literary into a multicoloured homage to geometric abstraction. Zooming in, one sees that Dumontier’s tomes teem with Farberesque titles: ‘Abandon Your Inner Tube’, ‘Speaking and Kissing in Tongues’, My First Wedding’ and ‘Zinky’ caught my eye, along with ‘We Sold Our Son to a Witch and Our Daughter to a Hypnotist’. 


Will the freshness run out? It seems unlikely: Farber is confident, after 16 years of collaboration, that each new idea he and Dumontier have will continue to branch into several further possibilities… 

Karel Funk

Untitled #53, 2012
Karel (say ‘Carl’) Funk’s name has East European origins, but he was born in Winnipeg in 1971. His work is the epitome of intense application to a narrow range of focus: for fifteen years he has painted nothing but heads, often turned away or hidden by clothing which Funk provides. Nor has his basic technique changed: Funk himself takes multiple photographs of the subject, shot in the studio downstairs from his living space; 3 or 4 of that then form the starting point for the most basic of underdrawings on an MDF board, followed by hundreds of semi-translucent layers of acrylic. That fills out the image in a level of investigative detail which persuades equally from close to or far from the canvas.  Funk works on one painting at a time, as a systematic full-time job, and finishes five in a good year.

Karel Funk in his basement-come-studio

Yet when he talks you through his development, it seems both more grounded in necessity and more engaged with change than you might expect.

Untitled #39, 2008
The strength of Funk’s originating idea is clear. He echoes the techniques of renaissance portraiture and catches its associated spiritual intensity, but avoids any direct engagement between subject and viewer – hence eyes are closed if seen at all, and hence his decision for some years not to depict women, which could have opened up issues around the male gaze (see eg John Currin).  That switches our attention to the abstract qualities of the painting, and to the implications of an unknowable inner life. It’s a solipsistic vision which Funk has compared with the isolating yet intimate effect of being crushed up behind someone on a subway.  Meantime, he dedicates himself to exacting description of ‘modern drapery’ – typically windbreaker jackets or hoodies, complete with seams which act like Newman’s ‘zips’.

Untitled #52, 20122

What may seem small changes to this formula are big issues for Funk, not least because if an experiment fails that’s three months of work with nothing to show for it. Over the years, though, his scale has slowly increased to approaching double life size; more visible flesh has been allowed; backpacks have just been added to the repertoire and figures who are definitely women introduced. It’s not exactly ‘rip it up and start again’, but perhaps that reflects the persistence needed to achieve change in an isolated community defined by its frequent need to wear coats…    

Images courtesy of the relevant artists + Winnipeg Art Gallery (Koop, Johnson sculpture), Galen Johnson (Maddin), Stephen Bulger Gallery (Johnson), Leif Norman /Pari Nadimi Gallery (Dudeck), 303 Gallery (Funk)


I visited four artists in Winnipeg to compare their lot with that of British artists, and to see what factors might explain the City’s high art profile, as celebrated in the concurrent shows ‘Winnipeg Now’ and ‘My Winnipeg’ at the city’s main public galleries. Those include the work of such internationally celebrated artists as Marcel Dzama (formerly of the well-known collective the Royal Art Lodge), Wanda Koop and film maker Guy Maddin as well as four whose studios I visited: Sarah Anne Johnson, Simon Hughes, Neil Farber and Karel Funk.

Canadians themselves tell me that the country is conservative and mad about sport, not art. How come, then, a city the size of Winnipeg (700,000) maintains a cultural programme across disciplines – ballet, music and film as well as visual art – which would be the envy of  a comparably-sized British city such as Sheffield? The factors seem to be economic, geographical and cultural.

First, the economics. The city spends $6 (around £4) per head on subsidising the arts, much more than is typical at a local level in the UK, and that’s supplemented by state and federal funding of many projects. That money is spent in varied and imaginative ways: in the expected grants to artists, yes, and in support of a wide range of institutions from a digital platform to print facility; but also, for example, in exporting the art to the world, hence the visit of the well-catalogued ‘My Winnipeg’, featuring 76 artists with local connections, to Paris last year; in funding  established female artists to provide advice to their younger sisters alongside educational and exhibition programmes (at ‘Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art’); and in outreach projects which see artists working with the community.

The other economic factor is: the city is cheap. Or as Sarah Anne Johnson puts it, in contrast to her time in New York, you can afford a big studio and materials and trips to other places. She and Simon Hughes both have spacious studios, while Neil Farber and Karel Funk have been able to afford houses big enough to set aside plenty of space to make work.

Winnipeg’s obvious geographical characteristics are its size, relative isolation, and cold. The city’s strapline to market itself as a tourist destination is ‘small town friendly, BIG TOWN FUN’ and as Shaun Mayberry, owner of the biggest commercial gallery in the city, put it to me, there’s an art equivalent in that Winnipeg is small enough that everyone knows each other, but big enough to ‘have a scene’. That, linked to the need to drive 500 miles to get to another town of any size – Minneapolis – makes the city unusually self-contained.  Contrast that with the gravitational pull of London, which is felt across England and ensures that almost all artists head for London if they aspire to make it big.

The climate is also mentioned by everyone. Winnipeg is the coldest large city in the world. If you spit in winter, it hits the ground as ice. ‘It’s dark and winters last forever’ according to Diana Thorneycroft, ‘so we go inside – inside our homes, our bodies and our heads’ – referring to not simply to lots of art-making occurring, but to its surreal tinge.

That slips into the cultural factors. The city has a distinctive character, brilliantly captured in Guy Maddin’s homage / dissection ‘My Winnipeg’, with its announcement of intent: ‘after a lifetime of trying and botched attempts I’m finally leaving Winnipeg for good – again’.   As that suggests, the people tend to combine a love-hate relationship with their city with a self-deprecating sense of humour which feeds productively into the art.

Winnipeg’s atypically large proportion of aboriginals (10% against an all-Canada average of 4%) is also relevant, increasing diversity in general and in an art context feeding in the influences of the distinctive traditions of the Inuit and First Nations, traditions which inform much of what is being made in the ‘mainstream’.
Education also plays its part: virtually all the artists featured in ‘Winnipeg Now’ attended the University of Manitoba. And there’s a strong tradition of artist-teachers inspiring the next generation – though not at the expense of students inspiring each other, which according to founder-member Neil Farber, was the key to the development of the City’s best-known collective, the Royal Art Lodge (1996-2008). Furthermore, once a place attains a critical mass for artists, it tends to develop and attract them more easily.

Winnipeg isn’t typical of Canada, of course, and Toronto, for example, is much bigger (5.5m) and more expensive, and also closer to other urban centres (only 300 miles from Montreal and 350 miles from New York, but 1300 miles from Winnipeg).  It didn’t feel to me from a couple of days there as if the support networks, amount of collaboration and profile of the arts were radically different between Toronto and London. It’s more a case of a ‘Winnipeg Effect’ than a Canadian effect.

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.