Sunday, 8 May 2016


Cabin Gallery, probably due to its location in Southfields, near Wimbledon, doesn't get quite the attention its shows deserve. For those who didn't quite make it, here are my recent texts to accompany those shows...

Aglaé Bassens


6 May - 11 June 2016


London-based young Franco-Belgian Aglaé Bassens’ recent shows have, you might say, made something out of nothing, gracefully uncovering the atmospheric melancholy in empty fish tanks, viewless windows, curtains and sofas. At CABIN, though, such reifications of emptiness are outnumbered by a new stream which, you might say, makes nothing out of something. We are pretty-much defined by our bodies and our heads, but Bassens presents only partial views of them: claustrophobic, awkward, intimate perhaps, but also shuttling those subjects back towards emptiness.

Other painters have made this move, but have tended to use a hyperreal technique of objective scrutiny. Ellen Altfest provides a good example: every follicle and wisp is painstakingly captured in her tightly-cropped sections of hirsute male flesh.  Bassens, in contrast, carries on with her distinctively fluid, rapid, intuitive application of paint, which points to colour field abstraction rather than photorealism. How, she was asked recently at her extensive show at the Revue Gallery, do you create the impression of painting with single strokes? ‘I paint with single strokes’, she replied.  Yet the results, like Altfest’s, oscillate between desire and detachment.  After all, when do you really pay attention to how hair is parted other than when homing in on the minutiae of a loved one? Surely that peep-through of ear is waiting to be nibbled?  And when do you look closely at how a shirt buttons up, other than when you intend to unbutton it? The more so, perhaps, in a fresh infatuation, in which context the third subject of Bassens’ paintings at Cabin – the curtained window – may signal the potential for pulling aside any obstructions to new experience.

As Bassens says, ‘the title ‘Front Parting’ suggests an element of sensuality to these new works, or at least of self/other and male/female’. There is also a literal aspect. We see a front-parted hairstyle in Forehead, one of the apparently female extracts here. And where is a shirt, which reads naturally as male here, parted other than at the front? And a curtain too, come to that?  Yet a certain plangency remains in play, for parting also evokes loss.  A curtain, after all, can be an exercise in frustration as well as temptation. Now that I think of it, that’s the other context for the partial view: glimpses of what you’d like to be closer to, are keen to experience whole, and yet cannot. ‘We passed on the stairs, and the way she parted her hair haunts me still…’.

 There are other ways, separate from the seemingly casual handling of paint, in which Bassens’ work departs from realist models. The framing and staging of the image tends to call attention to the choices being made and presented to us. Indeed, Bassens has sometimes included the process of painting in the painting. That staging extends to the scale, especially if what seems insignificant is blown up as big as Big Shirt Painting (there’s a twist of humour there, too: what’s big, the shirt or the painting?). Moreover, to monumentalise the partial view is to make it an explicit strategy, not a playful failure to fit the whole in. ‘I was interested’, she says, ‘in being so close to something you cannot see it’, in a phrase which retains a mournful undertow, as it might equally apply to the failure to remain objective or to the flaws in a relationship revealed only by a traumatic event. Bassens also has one eye on the history of art. The window can stand for plenty in that, and there’s a long history of white abstraction – it’s enough of a cliché that Yasmina Reza’s play Art revolves around it. The shirt and curtain paintings nod to that modern trope, though what the shirts remind me of more are snowscapes. Those blues have crept in from Monet and Pissarro. Then the ear in Ear plays the role of Fontana’s slash in the canvas.

This is the point at which we could hurtle on all the way to Freud. But actually I don’t believe it’s there in the work. That’s just the sort of interpretation Susan Sontag was against, one which imposes a metaphorical straightjacket on what the artist really means. There is a sensual tug here, but it’s placed in a setting which holds our engagement in check. Such art is reflective, rather than directly empathetic, and reflective art, said Sontag, though it ‘should not be frigid’, should be set up such that ‘the pull towards emotional involvement is counterbalanced by elements in the work that promote distance, disinterestedness, impartiality. Emotional involvement is always, to a greater or lesser degree, postponed’.[i]  Sontag spoke of ‘the erotics of art’, implying that we should approach it through sensuous engagement with form rather than seek a metaphorical interpretation of what it means. She wanted ‘transparence’, which she glossed as ‘experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are’.[ii] Circling back to how Bassens hooks us in to the world by applying a fluent painterliness to unexpected subjects, ‘transparence’ may be the word which catches how she makes something out of painting what seems nothing, and why she doesn’t quite make nothing out of painting something. Sontag, I reckon, would look at this show and ask: ‘see what I mean?’.

[i] Susan Sontag: Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson, 1964
[ii] Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation, 1964

Willem Weismann


18 March - 16 April 2016

Willem Weismann explains an old practical joke from his native Netherlands: ‘look at the squashed nose in this book’, you say, showing someone the open spread. As they peer in close to see, you snap the book shut on the nose. Just so, Weismann’s paintings trammel wittily between image, process and reality. Just so, you are lured in – typically by a harlequinade of inventory and colour – only to realise that the scenario shown is some sort of end game for the world. But also, typically, it’s difficult to get overly stressed by this: the slightly kooky figures in their rainbow splendour are hard to take seriously as tragic figures; it’s only a slap on the nozzle, after all.

In fact, there was a lot of close peering into books in Weismann’s show at The Nunnery last year.  He was implicitly comparing them with paintings: the same feeling of a dated medium, the same one-on-one artist grappling with his means of expression at desk or easel, the same reader /viewer need to slow down to take in the result, the same net-provoked tendency not to do so. Clearly, he felt a common cause, and though books aren’t prominent in Moonblinking, it’s evident that Weismann still values the ancient pattern of individualist creation with the hope of creating engaged individual responses.

As you approach Cabin, there’s a fairly typical Weismann in the window, facing out. A character, bordering on caricature, stares through binoculars. Is he spying on us? Is he surveying the scene, more benignly and a little optimistically, for visitors to the show? Or is he, as the painting’s title, ‘Signs of Life’ suggests, scanning a post-apocalyptic scene?  Whichever way, you might think him an odd fellow, scratching an obscure symbol in the sand, equipped with battered travel case and clunky old mobile phone, wearing a baseball cap with a binocular-length peak and a multi-coloured top more like a pinafore than a shirt – and which has actually served as the palette on which he’s put the colours for the painting. That last move is normal in Weismann’s world, reminding us of where we are. Weismann dreams up his scenarios in the studio, he doesn’t take them from photographic sources or models, and so the inclusion of the palette, which occurs in various playful ways, serves to make his whole self-contained system transparent.  In pointing to the painting as a painting, it allow us to read that garment / palette as clothing, as abstract patterning, as paint made explicit, as an index of the painting as a whole. 

That’s the move which Tom Morton has identified [i] as lampooning those who speculate on the ‘death of painting’. The paintings are mocking the demise supposedly faced by the medium.
If you’ve seen Weismann’s work before, though, you’re in for a conk-squish of surprise when you enter the gallery. The paintings are dark. They use black oil only, with glimpses of bare canvas serving as light. Perversely, as it seems,  Weismann has decided to see what’s left of his signature style when its most prominent feature – those slightly crazed edge-of-clashingchromatic blitzes suggestive of slight colour blindness – are removed. There are still blobby signs that Weismann has wiped his brushes on the canvas, but they merge into the gloom – if you weren’t looking for them, you wouldn’t spot them – and they could be self-parodic, for what’s the point of a palette with only one colour on it?

Kate Lyddon


12 February - 12 March 2016

We know what life is: rough and smooth, ugly and beautiful, cheap and expensive. Likewise the world: land and sea, fantasy and reality, now and then. But modernity can blur those boundaries: just to take death - in the hospital, not on the gallows; few starve on the streets; most lynchings take place by social media. Wind back 600 years and the delineations were sharper: saint and sinner, master and servant, freedom and slavery. Kate Lyddon is something of a medievalist, and such distinctions course through her work. Indeed, her recent show at the Zabuldowicz Collection revolved around wood spirits and bark witches.

Lyddon, then, trades in the clash and reconciliation of oppositions. That, in philosophical terms, might make her a contrastivist of sorts. Contrastivism is an epistemological theory, which is to say it deals with how we gain our knowledge of the world. That theory’s adherents say that knowledge is not a relation of the obvious two places – not, for example, ‘she knows it is purple’ – but of three, eg ‘she knows it is purple rather than blue’. That implies that she might not know that ‘it is purple rather than magenta’ – those are different degrees of knowledge. So, in Lyddon’s case, we might say not simply ‘she knows it is beautiful’ but ‘she knows it is beautiful rather than ugly’. The contrasts are entwined. We might be reminded of the defence of God for allowing suffering: what is pleasure without the possibility of pain? Lyddon’s twist, though, is that beauty doesn’t merely operate in the context of ugliness, but that they are potentially interchangeable categories. Not only do we define the beautiful partly by reference to the ugly, but the ugly may come to be seen as beautiful.

Lyddon enacts this contrastivism through both content and materials. Her portraits, if that’s the right term for imagined faces, use the traditionally significant medium of oil on canvas - expensive enough in pre-modern times that having one’s likeness made was indicative of wealth and status. Just so, Portrait [Woebegone] is wearing a ruff and Portrait [Blood-Red] a crown. That sets up the expectation of flattery, seriousness and impressive form and colour. What we get, though, is a cast of curiously-hued oddballs who seem decidedly unlikely to have been able to pay for their depictions, or – we might assume – to want to be depicted. Their features are, on the face of it, ugly by conventional standards. Are they diseased? Lyddon takes an interest in freak shows, medical history and in disfiguring conditions such as epidermodysplasia verruciformis or Tree-man Illness. Or perhaps they’re wounded - we might think of the disturbing aesthetics of Henry Tonks’ paintings of World War I casualties.

And yet... isn't there also a certain allure here? Portrait [Peely-Wally]’s skin is a potentially cool blue, and the decoration which doesn't so much emphasise as take over the eyes could be a fashion of the future.  The nose on Portrait [Liverish] is decidedly porcine, but perhaps our aesthetics should extend beyond the human, as well as beyond the narrow expectations of gender which these androgynous characters seem to evade. These figures are beautifully ugly. Or, looking in the other direction, consider how ugly beauty can seem:  the inflated collagen lips, frozen Botox expressions and lurid orange tans arrived at in the name of beauty can push beyond its conventions into quite different territory.

And there’s another ambiguity: are these accurate portraits, or is this just how the artist has chosen to represent her subjects, reflecting a diversion into the pleasures of using her materials?  Is it that the king's face is distorted to melting point in an eerie match for his elongated earrings, or has Lyddon exaggerated the earrings and carried that over into a face which replaces reality with a different potential for beauty - the painterly?

Lyddon’s sculpture, too, contains contrasts of both material and content. On the material side, ceramic and copper play off polystyrene and cast-off table legs. All the signs are that they are valued equally, and that Lyddon enjoys the way different materials provoke different responses. Clay-rather-than-polystyrene and polystyrene-rather-than-clay work more strongly for Lyddon in the context of how they could have been each other. So far as content goes, where the portraits do, by and large, appear whole, the sculptural characters are incomplete.  Yet maybe we're in the superficialising grip of conventional expectation once more. The ‘aesthetic of the fragment’ is well known, but isn’t conventionally applied to the living or the new. Why not go further, by collaging together those chosen elements and – embracing the grotesque – arrange body parts as surreal conjunctions of found objects?

Those two aspects are plain in Lower Limb with Spoon and Straw, in which a one-legged form, resplendent as a limb can be in scarlet Lycra leggings, relies on a copper pipe as an implausibly thin stand-in for his second leg. He’s lost his torso and arms entirely, and his head to the extent that it’s rolling on the floor. Where it used to be attached, the neck’s severance reveals the crudeness of the polystyrene of which he’s made.

Put the paintings and sculptures together, and you won’t be surprised to learn that Lyddon used to make paintings with all sorts of collage elements applied to generate that clash and reconciliation of opposites: it felt like Bacon meets Klee meets Quasimodo meets My Little Pony all on the canvas with scrawled lyrics to boot. Now paintings and objects have gone their separate ways, but come together as an installation in which copper tubes and cutlery act as connectors. The pipes remind us of plumbing inside the body, and their striping of a barber's pole. It’s said that such signs originally mimicked the bandaging after the medieval service of bloodletting (barber, surgeon and dentist being less distinct roles 600 years ago). If the copper tubes, then, stand in for the body’s processes of flow and waste, then the spoons stand in for sustenance. A circuit is proposed, related to the biggest contrast of all. There’s a play on the nobility of being ‘born with a silver spoon in the mouth’, while making it plain that - however valuable the implement - it all goes down the same way. As do we, in Larkin’s words, ‘down the long slide / To happiness, endlessly’ – in High Windows’ elision of another contrast, from the life-giving force of sexual discovery towards the only conclusion of our pursuits.

Cheer up, though! For Lyddon, like Larkin, brings an irrepressibly enjoyable relish to her account of the human condition.  There’s more comedy than tragedy in her contrastivist account of how history has brought us to this beautifully ugly pass. If all human experience, bodily and psychic, feeds through Lyddon and into her art, then On Drool is ‘about life’. It sounds trite to say so, but that’s how the work takes on its own – far from trite – life in practice. And, after all, what other subject is there?

Jonny Briggs


20 November - 31 December 2015

The family is not what it was. Our lives are far more fluid, geographically and affectively, than they used to be. Quite likely your parents have divorced and live hundreds of miles from each other and you. Quite likely it wouldn’t occur to you to follow in their professional or social footsteps. Quite likely you have enough choices, physically and virtually, to feel that blood relationships are or could be only a small part of your life picture. Yet we’d all accept that our family background is a formative influence on who we are. Most of us keep that in the back of our minds, and move on: so successfully that there has been recent press coverage of a trend for adult children ‘abandoning’ their ageing parents.

Moving on isn’t enough for Jonny Briggs, though. He wants to break more radically. “Escape,” wrote Emmanuel Levinas [i], “is the need to get out of oneself, that is, to break that most radical and unalterably binding of chains, the fact that the I is oneself.” For over a decade, Briggs’ art has attempted to achieve that. As he puts it: ‘I try to think outside the reality I was socialised into and create new ones with my parents’. Here, of course, a paradox lurks: for can a self which is largely formed by how and where it came into being ever truly break free from the background which indirectly determines the nature of those very escape attempts?

Briggs is, of course, aware of the problem. That gives his work an edge which feeds into his own embrace of paradox at the level of individual works. And the effort does lead him somewhere, even if it he can’t get where he hoped to go. Imagine an athlete who sets himself the goal of running a six second 100m. He won’t succeed, but if he trains hard enough he may get to a place – say 10 seconds – he would not otherwise have reached.

Briggs has used several approaches to these ends, in all of which we’re aware of his presence as the artist, though it’s normally his parents whom we see. He has directed them in photographic tableaux which – through his controlling role as artist and photographer – reverse the parent-child power relationship. He has treated the home as a metaphorical body, especially when grappling with his grandmother’s cancer, and explored the cognitive psychology of ‘context dependent recall’ – the way a place can act as cue for memories. He’s turned around his memories by montaging his parents’ heads onto photographs from his childhood.  He has made us think that he has constructed realities out of collaged or photo-shopped elements, only for it to turn out that the situation is at one level ‘real after all’.

‘To Eat with the Eyes’ approaches those issues by different means: most of the works are detourned versions of historic black and white photographs of his grandparents and great grandparents.  The alterations all reconfigure the gaze of his relatives. Several are rendered monocular by a splicing which combines their eyes. The effect is unsettling - maybe that’s why we speak of ‘the evil eye’ rather than ‘the evil eyes’. The one all-seeing eye seems to stare us down, oddly, more fully than two would. There’s something forensic about the look: I’m put in mind of a security camera as much as a person. Knowing Briggs’ trajectory, though, we’re bound to read these as another attempt to alter the construction of his own identity, this time by going back to earlier generations and recasting how they see him.

The second group of photographs altered by what Briggs calls his ‘mindful vandalism’, it being more controlled than iconoclastic destruction, is somewhat ironically entitled ‘the Envisionaries’.  Here Briggs obstructs his ancestors’ eyes by pinning lips onto them. That makes for the right organs with which to ‘eat with the eyes’, and picks up the suggestion in that phrase of the consuming appetites which sight can stimulate. The prominence of the pins is, again, disturbing, and the extra mouths do nothing to change the fact that the dead can’t speak.
The contemporary colour images of Briggs’ mother provide a contrast.  They do set up oracular conjunctions, but the effect is more akin to a comical wink to indicate connivance. If they’re sharp eyes, that may be literally implied by how glass meets in the middle of them. That’s caused by the technique of cutting and conjoining not just the image, but the frame and mount as well, collaging the image as object.

The forensic note returns in what seems at first and, indeed, second glance like a rather attractive record of the woodland floor even if we guess – rightly – that this is where Briggs grew up, making it something of a primal scene for him.  Near the lower right hand corner, though, you may spot a mouth. Remember the opening scene of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, which zooms in on an ear in the grass? This may be just a photograph of Briggs’ mother’s mouth, but it’s disquieting nonetheless, once found. It plays another version of the mouth for eye pun through the title: Peephole. But is it for dark forces to spy on us from under, or for us to look through and check we’re safe?

All sorts of arcana feed in to Briggs’ work:  he mentions that the Japanese have a word for ‘cute enough to eat’; talks of the Amazonian tribes who believe that it shows great respect for the dead to eat them; the psychological theory of transference; how much he’s just enjoyed visiting a mannequin factory; that he’s experimenting with the practice of meditating with a partner by them staring into each other’s eyes unceasingly. As such background thinking indicates, these are not casual images, and Briggs plans his effects with economically precise drawings which act as stage directions for how his photographs will be set up.  Yet the underlying issue remains that comparatively simple paradox: how was I formed, and can I escape that? Will I always be trapped in the nexus of the past, no more able to move on completely than to literally eat with my eyes?

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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.