Saturday, 17 February 2018

Fleapit revisited:Lady Bird.

"We're afraid that we will never escape our past. We're afraid of what the future will bring. We're afraid we won't be loved, we won't be liked, and we won't succeed".

Greta Gerwig's bittersweet new feature Lady Bird is as much an apology as it as a love letter. Near the end of the film Christine 'Lady Bird' McPherson (brilliantly played by Saoirse Ronan) finds a letter from her mother that spells out all of mum's deepest feelings for, and about, her daughter. All the stuff mum (equally brilliantly played by Laurie Metcalf) lacked either the confidence or the words to articulate face to face.

In a similar vein, Gerwig has looked back at her late teenage years in the Californian state capital of Sacramento and scripted them into a tight hour and a half of low key drama that seem to look back both in love, fondness, and a little regret at her youth. The film is both love letter and apology to Sacramento, to California, to the early noughties, to her friends, to her family, and, perhaps most of all, to herself.

Ronan plays Lady Bird (a self chosen nickname that seems to owe nothing to Lyndon B. Johnson's wife) as a mixture of defiance, pretention, confusion, confidence, and no little gaucheness. She's both endearing and alienating at the same time. She disrupts lessons, she argues (constantly) with her mum, she dreams of New York (or Connecticut, where the writers live), she swears at inappropriate moments, and she lies to her friends and family to concoct a better life for herself. She's the archetypal teenager who in realising she's smarter than most of the others in her class mistakes that for thinking she knows everything.

Of course that kind of character has a huge potential for being annoying or irritating so it's with great credit to both Gerwig's sript and direction, and Ronan's nuanced portrayal, that Lady Bird comes across as anything but that. This film does a great job of excavating those teenage feelings and presenting them to us to view with the dirt of the lived experience still on them. While at times you might want to give her a shake and tell her to get over herself, there are also occasions when you feel like screaming to her mother 'why don't you just give her a hug', or to one of her two unsuitable, though in very different ways, suitors 'just kiss her, man'.

Lady Bird attends a Catholic school in Sacramento where she dreams of making it either in mathematics or drama (neither fields in which she excels). She doesn't help her case by constantly backchatting her principals and is sad when her overweight friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) gets both better grades and a better role in the school production of The Tempest. Lady Bird struggles to hide her jealousy and their friendship, forged in the scoffing of illicitly procured communion wafers and giggling about boy's willies, is imperilled.

Home life is fractious too. Mum struggles to express love and Dad (Tracy Letts) has lost his job in middle age and with it his confidence. He's sinking slowly, yet gracefully, in to depression. Also sharing the house are Lady Bird's adopted brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his girlfriend Shelley (Marielle Scott), kindly, if a little poorly sketched, alternative types with nearly as many piercings each as they're given lines in the film. 

On top of this Lady Bird's just beginning to embark on her first romantic adventures which, initially at least, seem to offer an escape route from the stultifying humdrum and reduced circumstances of her own existence. First boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges, on excellent form just as he was in both Manchester by the Sea and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) is kind, supportive, endearingly awkward and fumbling, and so 'respectful' he refuses to touch Lady Bird's breasts even when she's offering him.

Lady Bird's other love interest comes in the form of conspiracy theorist, know-it-all, self absorbed Kyle (Timothee Chalamet showing his acting chops by playing an almost mirror image of his adorable character in Call Me By Your Name). Kyle honks, rather than knocks, when he picks Lady Bird up for the prom, he says he doesn't believe in money (while all the while sponging off his rich parents), and his lovemaking technique is about as expressive as his limited conversation. He's a bit of a prick, truth be told.

As the penny drops and Lady Bird realises that some of these cool kids are just shallow and that the deep waters of her family and true friends are far more nourishing and rewarding we reach the heart of this film. It's a rites of passage story - and a fairly traditional one at that (don't drink, don't lie, don't go with boys, don't move to the big city, love your family, love your (real) friends, be thankful for what you've got, and be true to your school) - but it's done with such panache, humour, and understatement it fails to irk and in fact leaves us with a lovely warm glow as we reflect on its marvellous evocation of youth and all of its, at the time, very confusing choices and scruples.

The gentle humour is neatly balanced with pensive scenes, the performances are great throughout (Ronan and Metcalf particularly but Hedges, Feldstein, and Letts also deserve acknowledgement as do Stephen McKinley Henderson as lachrymose Father Leviatch and Lois Smith as Sister Sarah John, thankfully, played as a kindly elder rather than, as protocol seems to insist, a sadistic monster), and Sacramento itself puts in a decent cameo appearance as a city that really doesn't look so bad after all.

I began this piece by saying Lady Bird is a bittersweet film. But it's the sweetness that wins out every time. This love letter has been scented with the magnolia blossoms that just so happen to bloom in Sacramento each spring.

Thanks to Joe, Isaac, Teresa, and Adam for sharing this lovely evening at the Curzon Bloomsbury (and later in Ravi Shankar's) with me.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Dali & Duchamp:A chess game at the edge of reality.

"Systematise confusion and thereby contribute to a total discreditation of the world of reality" - Salvador Dali, The Petrified Donkey, 1930.

These words, spoken by the then young (mid-twenties) Salvador Dali, could be seen as a mantra for the style of leadership that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have brought to the world. If Dali's words were intended both as playful and a little bit teasing then those that chose to run with that particular ball have been anything but. But you can't blame The Beatles for Ocean Colour Scene, you can't blame Elvis Presley for Cliff Richard, and you shouldn't blame Salvador Dali or Marcel Duchamp for all that has been done in their names either. Be it some truly dreadful surrealist art or piles of utterly self-absorbed conceptual art.

Both these artists were way ahead of their time and if, initially, it seems they're unlikely bedfellows to share a show, the Royal Academy's Dali and Duchamp, then further investigation, and some gentle prodding on behalf of the curators, prove this to be anything but the case.

Both Dali and Duchamp began as fairly traditional artists (see Dali's Lane to Portlligat and Duchamp's St Sebastian below), became involved with movements that rocked the 20c art world (Dali - surrealism, Duchamp - Dadaism/conceptualism), before eventually rejecting the strictures of those movements to break out in their own, extraordinary, ways.

Duchamp - The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes (1912)
Both were inspired by the seemingly endless possibilities of the game of chess, how it solves old problems yet creates new ones at the same time, and if there's a tendency in the exhibition visitor's mind to try to reduce this to a chess game between Dali and Duchamp then that's very possibly a mistake - and one that can only result in a stalemate.
Unsurprisingly this is the first UK exhibition to bring Dali (born 1904 in Figueres, Catalonia) and Duchamp (seventeen years Dali's senior, born in Normandy, 1887) together and it follows their careers from before they met in 1930 (possibly at a film screening) through to Duchamp's death in the outskirts of Paris in 1968. Duchamp, Dali, and Dali's partner Gala holidayed together in Spain in 1933 and we'll see a rather fetching portrait of the three of them on the beach together later in this article.
Despite their surface differences (Dali painted, Duchamp rejected painting. Dali was a consummate show off, Duchamp a private and reserved individual) they shared a sense of humour and an interest in optics, language, and finding new ways of challenging the always starchy art world. They both enjoyed the creation of myths (in Dali's case, mostly his own) and, inspired by Andre Breton (who was later responsible for ostracising Dali from the surrealist group), they both rallied against 'the primacy of the hand' in art. The mind, they both agreed, was where true beauty and genuine creation lived.
Their art was 'rooted in instinct' and intentionally free of logic and morality. They weren't interested in surface but wanted to look, almost microscopically, at what lied beneath. Inspired by the writings of Sigmund Freud, they sought to be bold in their expression of sexuality, they felt that eroticism was a 'profoundly individual' experience, and it's noteworthy that often a shoe or a piece of fruit, in Dali's work particularly, can carry just as much erotic charge as his naked bodies, erect cocks, and scenes of bondage.

Dali - Cubist Self-Portrait (1923)

Dali - The Lane to Portlligat with View of Cap de Cress (1922-23)

Duchamp - St Sebastian (1909)

Dali - Portrait of my Father (1925)
In Duchamp's 1912 The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes, an almost futurist work, his interest in chess, science and sex are all bought together in one astonishing whirlwind of a painting. Seven years later he had the audacity to mock Leonardo's Mona Lisa by adding a moustache and goatee and titling it with a play on words that translates, roughly, to 'she's got a hot ass'.
At this time Dali was still painting more traditional, though intense and highly technically proficient, portraits of his father but it wasn't long until he too started to find a route towards what would become his signature style. 1929's The First Days of Spring has a lot going on - but it has a lot of space in it too. Birds in boxes, fish appearing from torsos, a man seemingly riding a skeleton as another man rides him, some bizarre sexual shenanigans, and a man in a chair who's turned away from the action and sadly stares out to the abyss. What it all means is anyone guess, my friend Valia and I spent some time ruminating on it without any satisfactory answers, but it's absolutely intriguing.

Duchamp - L.H.O.O.Q. (1919)

Dali - The First Days of Spring (1929)

Duchamp - Tonsure (1921)
It was certainly a step away from the Picasso inspired cubism of six years earlier (see Cubist Self-Portrait, above, for proof) and once Dali was on that road he wasn't returning. Elsewhere in the art world Edgard Varese was pioneering electronic composition, Man Ray was revolutionising photography, and Francis Picabia was mixing the surrealism beloved of Dali with the Dadaism from which Marcel Duchamp sprang. Duchamp had a photo taken of himself with a star shaved in to his head to celebrate before developing a female alter ego, Rrose Selavy, who he'd dress up as to create both controversy and art and to confuse people's feelings. Having been rejected by the cubists in the past he'd grown reluctant of 'movements' of any kind and any attempt to try to put him in a box only resulted in Duchamp moving as fast as he could in the other direction.

By the thirties Salvador Dali was really beginning to hone his style. Large canvasses with distorted bodies, optical illusions, discomfiting imagery, twisted sexual fantasies, and all painted with an exquisite precision. Meditation of the Harp is as dreamy as The Enigma of William Tell is nightmarish. The Spectre of Sex Appeal depicts a young boy staring up at a female 'body' that clearly both arouses and upsets him at the same time. Catalan Bread leaves very little to the imagination as a melting watch and some fine thread spectacularly fail to prevent the erection of a proud, and presumably doughy and yeasty, penis.

Dali - Meditation of the Harp (1932-34)

Dali - The Enigma of William Tell with the Apparition of a Celestial Gaia (1933)

Dali - The Spectre of Sex Appeal (1934)

Duchamp - Pledge of Chastity (1954)

Dali - Catalan Bread (1932)
If Dali's developments into what could be painted were groundbreaking, then Duchamp's rejection of the form bordered on the revolutionary. He was very probably the first person to consider that what the object looked like was actually unimportant. What was important, to Duchamp and his followers, was what the artist meant by it. With this in mind it was only a small step before you didn't even have to make any art, you could simply find something and put it in a gallery. A 'readymade'. It's a term we're all familiar with now but when Duchamp first exhibited an umbrella stand in a gallery nobody noticed at all, or at least assumed that it was an umbrella stand. Which it was. It gets confusing. But so does life.

Hat racks, urinals, and bicycle wheels were all famously co-opted into Duchamp's portfolio. As well as cocking a snook at the art world and even art itself was he making a point about increasing industrialisation? Nobody seems sure but it certainly would've tied in with the times.

Assisted readymades came next. A load of stuff shoved together. In Why Not Sneeze Rrose Selavy? Duchamp combined a bird cage, marble blocks, and a cuttlefish bone. This was where Dali came in. His Lobster Telephone (made with the assistance of Sussex surrealist poet Edward James) is now world famous but Gaia's Shoe is perhaps even more powerful, its combination of levers and pulleys and a patent red leather shoe exerting a strange sexual pull on the viewer that, like the young voyeur in The Spectre of Sex Appeal, seems to straddle the delicate and fluid line between lust and repulsion.

Duchamp - Hat Rack (1917/1964)

Dali (with Edward James) - Lobster Telephone (1938)

Duchamp - Fountain (1917/1964)

Duchamp - Bicycle Wheel (1913/1964)

Dali - Surrealist Object Functioning Symbolically - Gaia's Shoe (1930/1973)
It wasn't just sex, and inanimate objects that represent sex, for Dali. Sometimes, as with the man he called his father, Freud (and how Freudian is that?), a cigar is just a cigar - and sometimes love is the dominant emotion. The Two Pieces of Bread Expressing the Sentiment of Love represent Dali and Gala and, making it a must for this show, the solitary chess pawn that looks on is their close friend Marcel Duchamp. Is he a gooseberry? A third wheel? A voyeur? A welcome party to a threesome? Or just a friend?
It's not really important. Lovers have their heads in the clouds and can sometimes be blissfully ignorant of the tragedies of reality. Dali saw this too. He had no qualms with it. His only issue was with repression and, true to this, he was never shy of expressing his desires, no matter how personal or potentially perverted they may've appeared to contemporary mores, in his work. Duchamp was cagier about it but he too developed a private, metaphorical terminology to describe his sexual desires. He felt eroticism was such a powerful dictator of human behaviour that it could, if correctly harnessed, replace other isms like romanticism and symbolism. It's probably safe to say that that, now, has happened in society.

Dali - Two Pieces of Bread Expressing the Sentiment of Love (1940)

Dali - Couple with their Heads Full of Clouds (1937)

Dali - Still Life Fast Moving (Nature Morte Vivante) (1956)

Duchamp - 3 Standard Stoppages (1913-14/1964)
All that said that it's hard for me to make sense of 3 Standard Stoppages. It seems an exercise in mathematical formulae, that, if anything, is completely lacking in erotic appeal. I like a good sum as much as the next person but unless I can write that sum on a nice bum it's not something I'd go so far as to describe as sexy!
Christ, good looking fellow though he is, is another who's never really turned me on. There's no doubting the brilliance of Dali's portrait of Christ of Saint John on the Cross but it seems to be rather a retrogressive step for an artist who only a decade or so earlier had pushed things so far forward.
As Dali became something of a circus act, twirling his moustache and making faux-profound yet banal pronouncements to his increasingly slavish following, Duchamp retreated into a world of chess (or pretended to so he could focus on his art away from prying eyes) and Alfred Jarry's mock scientific school of pataphysics, a highly confusing literary 'trope' that I've not been able to get my head round yet and will, time permitting, one day invest more time in trying to understand.

Dali - Christ of Saint John on the Cross (c.1951)

Duchamp - Network of Stoppages (1914)

Dali - Exploding Raphaelesque Head (1931)

Dali - Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach (1938)
It meant, for me, that I couldn't quite get to grips with some of the Duchamp works in the last room of this small, but packed and very busy, exhibition. In that I stand apart from many other critics and observers who seem to have unanimously come away with the verdict that Duchamp has got Dali's king backed into a corner and is lining up his pieces ready to pounce.
I think that's a trifle unfair. Unlike chess, but as with sex and love, art isn't a competition. We can see this in the way these two artists coaxed and inspired each other to move ever forwards in their art. They didn't do it because one of them was going to be announced the winner at the end of the day, they did it because it was what they wanted to do, they felt it was worthwhile, and they felt compelled towards it. Again, far more like love and sex than chess.
In the final rooms I marvelled at Dali's Exploding Raphaelesque Head, the film of his dream sequence from Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, and his almost Rauschenbergian Madonna as much as I scratched my head at Duchamp's pataphysical works and his Network of Stoppages. But in 1913's Chess Players we can see the genesis of so many great strands of art that I'm certain any misgivings I have about Duchamp's later work are simply down to me not devoting enough time to them. Because art is not always something you can 'get' instantly. It takes time, devotion, and passion. In that it is, again, like sex and love and even, in this instance, like chess. With that I moved my bishop to square g4 and waited for my opponent to move their pawn so I could get their king in check. Woo-hah! Busta Rhymes would've loved it. I certainly did.
Dali - Madonna (1958)

Duchamp - The Chess Players (1913)
Thanks to Valia for the tickets, her input that inspired my assessment of the show, and, most of all, her company.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Fleapit revisited:Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.




Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a rollercoaster ride of burning police stations, bar room brawls, women being punched in the face, men being lobbed out of first floor windows, sons holding knives to their father's throats, and high school students being booted squarely in the crotch.

Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's sad. Sometimes people behave in realistic ways and sometimes they behave completely unrealistically. The film is sprinkled with fucks and cunts (disproving my theory that only one c-bomb is permitted in each American movie) and at no point do you have any idea what the hell is gonna happen next. Both the premise and the realisation of that premise are quite unlike anything else I've seen. Even if some of the more iconoclastic and taboo provoking elements of the script will be familiar to fans of previous McDonagh works like In Bruges.

Ebbing, Missouri looks like textbook small town America, almost a Disneyfication of such but Disney's dream has been debased by the unsolved, and seemingly uninvestigated, murder of Angela Hayes nine months before.

Her mother, Mildred (Frances McDormand), frustrated by the lack of progress hits on the idea of displaying the capitalised slogans I've listed above on a series of billboards on a barely used sliproad to provoke the police into action and Red (Caleb Landry Jones, so good in Get Out), a slightly less than professional local 'businessman', is more than happy to take Mildred's money and make this happen.

Other townsfolk are less than satisfied with this turn of events. Obese dentists, can lobbing youths, creepy visitors to the gift shop where Mildred sells ceramic rabbits, and even Mildred's own family all have their own, often personally specific reasons, for questioning both her motives and her sanity.

By-the-book police chief Willoughby (played by Woody Harrelson with a furrowed brow, a kindly demeanour, and a cheeky grin), despite being namechecked on the billboards, is more phlegmatic than most, but even he has his doubts. His pancreatic cancer is an open secret in Ebbing but it cuts no ice with Mildred despite a grudging respect, bordering on affection, between the two of them.

His sidekick, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), is a much thornier character and the representation of this racist, violent, drunk, inarticulate mummy's boy has caused nearly as many issues outside the film as Dixon does within the two hours of its screen time.

Dixon is an unapologetic racist, accused of torturing 'persons of colour', and often seen lurking around town bars trying to provoke a fight. Essentially he's a moron. Yet Willoughby indulges him to a degree that even in rural Missouri surely wouldn't, and couldn't, be tolerated. Willoughby can come across a bit holier-than-thou but clearly he's as determined to do the right thing and keen to see justice done as Mildred is driven to avenge her daughter's rape and death.

But does having a racist character in a film make a film racist? Clearly not. Racism, sadly, exists. You could make the argument that Dixon's racism isn't explained but how could it be? Racism is, by its very nature, inexplicable - either a perverted gut reaction or a hand-me-down from a generation who were force fed the perverted gut reactions of those who served, or were sold, a pernicious agenda.

Morally ambiguous sure, but I don't buy the idea that this is a racist movie. Dixon is the (second) least sympathetic character in it and even he, eventually, undergoes something of an awakening. It's crudely handled, no doubt, but this, as the aforementioned fucks and cunts should've alerted you, is not a feature that deals in either delicacy or gradual personality shifts. All is subsumed into a rollicking caper which may lack subtlety but, at no point, could find favour amongst the alt-right.

McDormand and Harrelson play it (mostly) straight while Rockwell, Landry Jones, and Peter Dinklage (as a midget, his words, who sells used cars and has a drink problem) seem to view the film as a chance to up the ante on their comedy chops.

On that the film is a tad confused but with winning performances from Lucas Hedges (essentially reprising his sullen, depressed, and sarcastic teenager role from Manchester by the Sea), Abbie Cornish, and Clarke Peters (from both Treme and The Wire) and small roles (that add little to the substance but bring plenty of flavour) from Amanda Warren (Mildred's friend, Denise), Darrell Britt-Gibson (Jerome), Samara Weaving (Penelope), and not least Sandy Martin as Dixon's equally unreconstructed mother and Zeljko Ivanek as a desk sergeant, it'd be curmudgeonly to deny that Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri is anything other than an utterly thrilling piece of film making.

Oscar material? Not quite for me. But with a soundtrack of Townes Van Zandt, The Four Tops, and Joan Baez (singing The Band's The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down)  I'd not be offended if musical director Carter Burwell was to pick up a gong. McDonagh can make do with the no doubt plentiful box office receipts. This is more blockbuster than art-house and there's no shame in that whatsoever.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Theatre night:John.

"All the confusion and fear and self-hatred that I'd always felt in the presence of other people ... I was shedding it like a skin. The spell had ended and I remember thinking: everything is possible. If this is possible, anything is possible.” - Mertis.

Bostonian playwright Annie Baker's three hours plus long John is a strange, difficult, somewhat discomfiting, yet very alluring, experience. Part Southern Gothic, part magic realism, and part relationship drama, with a side helping of body horror and just a touch of the comedy of manners in the mix.

If that sounds confusing, or even confused, it's anything but. The lengthy stage time, 'indulgent' I heard a fellow patron tell his date in hushed tones, allows ample space for character development, it permits several different themes to be explored, and if nothing of great import happens until nearly two hours in that just makes the punch to the solar plexus all the more powerful, and discombobulating, when it's finally, and unexpectedly, delivered.

The plot concerns Jewish drummer/computer programmer Elias (Tom Mothersdale) and his partner Jenny (Anneika Rose) checking in to an antebellum guest house in Gettysburg, Pennsylavnia between Thanksgiving and Christmas on their way back to New York so that Elias can indulge his passion for all things American Civil War related:- ghost walks, tours of nearby battlefields etc;

The guest house is run by creakily bodied but sharp minded Mertis (Marylouise Burke) and is decorated in a fashion that would be sneered at by the Farrow and Ball generation. The breakfast area and coffee lounge has been quaintly nicknamed Paris, there's a player piano that has a tendency to go off at the slightest provocation, and there are knick-knacks and whimsies aplenty. But most of all there are dolls, dolls, and more dolls. Almost every available surface or ledge is populated with the dead eyed children's toys.

One doll, sat 'pretty' on a rocking chair, particularly unnerves Jenny as it reminds her of her own doll, Samantha, that she'd grown up in a love/hate relationship with in Columbus, Ohio. Samantha had had such an uncanny, and unsettling, effect on Jenny that she'd been consigned to the basement for decades. Was her doppelganger here to seek revenge? In the dead of winter, when it gets dark by 5pm, in a remote house with a strange lady (Mertis) and her even more peculiar friend (Genevieve) anything seems possible.

Genevieve (June Watson) is as direct as Mertis is conciliatory. They've obviously been friends for aeons and as Genevieve drinks red wine, talks of her husband, John, and tells how, at the age of fifty-seven, she was suddenly struck blind and had no regrets about it, Mertis, and Jenny (who by now has tired of accompanying Elias on his Civil War history treks) listen intently. Genevieve certainly knows how to capture an audience, both the one on stage and the actual one. On one occasion she breaks the fourth wall with a hilarious, terrifying, monologue about her life, her philosophy, and the 20,000 Benedictine monks she once imagined marching through her empty head. 

Are these fantastic visions inspired by Mertis reading Genevieve H P Lovecraft's The Call of Ctulhu by candlelight? Perhaps by the stories about how the house had been used a hospital during the Civil War and how at one time so many arms and legs were amputated and piled up outside you couldn't see out of the windows.

I was always gripped by this play and on at least two occasions I was chilled to the degree that I felt a shiver down my spine. I never found it indulgent. As with Nuri Bilge Ceylan's wonderful films (Once Upon A Time In Anatolia and Winter Sleep particularly) I felt the lengthy character development a vital part of the experience. Often we start off down a road that may not lead to a destination in the plot as such but will throw up a different, as yet unrevealed, trait of one of the four characters. The rule of Chekhov's gun may not have been abandoned completely but has been twisted and teased into something entirely new. MacGuffins-a-plenty cropped up throughout the story, more than you would think acceptable, but none of them derailed the plot and all were utilised to gently propel it forwards.

As we wondered, and pondered, potential supernatural ephemera the very real stuff of human relationships was put under a microscope and scrutinised. From the minor irritations of spending a life together (slurping one's breakfast, failing to share each other's hobbies) to bigger problems like trust issues, infidelity, and assuming your chosen partner is metamorphosising into an arthropod during sex.

Annie Baker has written, and James Macdonald directed, a fantastic, engrossing, and thoughtful play. In Burke, Watson, Rose, and Mothersdale they have found four actors who manage to bring it to life with, sometimes, a light touch that belies the seriousness of the subject, and, on other occasions (as if nodding to Milan Kundera's most famous work), a heavy touch that belies the lightness of the subject. Kafkaesque and Pinterseque are two of the most clichéd adjectives employed in all theatre criticism but here they've been well earned. The headlights of a car parking up outside the guest house light up the side wall as quietly, but eerily, as this play seeps into our conscience.

But the spooky dolls, the haunted houses, the ten foot high piles of amputated limbs of Unionist soldiers, the twenty thousand Benedictine monks marching through the skull of a blind lady who gave up on any pretence to conformity some decades ago - none of them are the real horror.

The real horror lies in the way we treat those that love and care for us the most, and in the way that those who love and care for us the most treat us in return. The real horror lies in the gap between thought and expression (given life by Annie Baker's exquisite use of pauses) that can, without us even realising, widen to reveal a yawning, possibly unbreachable, chasm. The real horror isn't in the supernatural but in the very natural and this play deals skilfully in the power of suggestion that threads those two disparate, but interdependent, states together.

It's said that one of the cruellest ironies of our existence is that a life that can only be understood backwards has to be lived forwards. In that respect Annie Baker's John was much like life itself. I left the Dorfman Theatre (as part of the brutalist National Theatre a highly suitable home for such an experience) startled, intrigued, saddened, and excited all at the same time. I came away with so many conflicting emotions that a part of me felt the need to go back to the play, again and again, to try to make sense of it all.

Come with me next time and let's share something, experience a moment (or even three hours), together that we can never truly comprehend at the same level as each other. For the pain of never truly knowing what another human being is thinking is, paradoxically enough, something each and every one of us can share.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Rose Wylie:Quack Quack.

"In my life I stack and heap up notations of experiences. Usually I paint something I've seen, but I may fiddle with the scale, context and rules of gravity. I draw from observation, memory and with 'conceptual projection' - how a stereotype would look from the un-stereotypical view" - Rose Wylie.

When I visited Rose Wylie's 'Horse, Bird, Cat' show last January at the David Zwirner gallery on Grafton Street in Mayfair, I'd written " I'll have to look out for future shows" in an assessment that was both fulsome and generous, if a little guarded due to the small scale of the show, in its appraisal of her work.

But, and despite many of the same themes (Cuban dancers, West African barber shops, huge planes of colour, and flattened perspectives) being riffed on, with the Serpentine Sackler's equally childishly titled retrospective, Quack Quack I ask you, of her work I came away less, rather than more, impressed.

Maybe her work doesn't warrant a show of this size after all. Maybe it's me, maybe what I want from art now is different. Or maybe it's the world we live in. We're living in tough, confusing, and potentially very dangerous times. Twee pictures of horses, cats, and park benches don't really cut it.

Arsenal & Spurs (2006)

Yellow Strip (2006)
As mere trinkets, diversions from the stuff of life, it's entirely apt that two paintings of football have been included. Football (and I like it) has, for many years, been the bread and circuses dished out to us, the lower orders, to keep us placated. The acrobats and clowns that perform the beautiful game receiving grossly distorted recompense for their role in keeping us distracted.
Though it's hard to imagine a football fan getting much from either Arsenal & Spurs or Yellow Strip. Any more than it could be suggested that Park Bench (Migrant) says anything worthwhile about the growing problems of homelessness, the migrant crisis, or our woeful response to it.
Jack Goes Swimming (Jack) sneaks in a reference to Philip Seymour Hoffman but, again, it doesn't seem to offer any comment on drug addiction or the underlying anxieties and depressions that lead people like Hoffman to self-medication and, eventually, suicide. It doesn't even say much about his acting. It's just a badly painted pink man hovering over a swimming pool.

Park Bench (Migrant) 2017

Choco Leibnitz (2006)

Jack Goes Swimming (Jack) (2013)

Cuban Scene, Smoke (2016)

Irreverent Anatomy Drawing (2017)
Of course, not everything has to mean something. Art can just look nice - or can be fun. But Wylie's work, when spread across a reasonably large show like this, starts to look a bit unimaginative. She starts to look a bit stuck. The reds and yellows of Empty Bench and its faux-naïve rendering made it one of my favourite things in the show but Playing Well and ER & ET? Well, they just look a bit shit really, don't they?
Wylie's paintings conjure up half-remembered things from normal life, television, and films - and that's all well and good - but she doesn't seem to do much with them. Why not tease these half-remembered ideas and vague gauzy dreams into weird and fantastic shapes? Why not take us on some kind of trip? Why not push at the barriers of imagination? Why play it so very safe? Because it gets you a big show at a major London gallery one suspects.

Empty Bench (2017)

Playing Well (2016)

ER & ET (2011)

PC Small Head With Frame III (2014)

Park Dogs & Air Raid (2017)

Party Clothes (RW and Cat) (2016)
Claims that the show's title is both inspired by the ducks in the park and also a riff on 'ack ack' (a term used to describe the sound of World War II aircraft artillery) suggest there's a bit more going on, and the scrawls on Rosemount (coloured) and Queen with Pansies (Dots) look, initially, as intriguing as an imperial phase Fela Kuti or Fall album cover, but I'm screwed if I can fathom exactly what it is.
In January 2017 I left a Rose Wylie show wishing for more. In February 2018 I walked out of a Rose Wylie show and I felt I'd probably had my fill for now. Pity.

Rosemount (coloured) (1999)

Queen with Pansies (Dots) (2016)

Pink Skater (Will I Win, Will I Win) (2015)

Kill Bill (Film Notes) (2007)