Saturday, 30 April 2016

Escape route from the strange and familiar world of....

I blogged recently about some of my misgivings with photographer Martin Parr which were exacerbated by a disappointing Guildhall show. So I thought twice before attending the Barbican's Strange and Familiar photography exhibition. Despite it not featuring any of Parr's work he had curated the whole thing. Painstakingly as it turned out.

A positive review from a work colleague had me hotfooting it to the Barbican as soon as I finished work on Friday afternoon and I'm very glad I did. Parr certainly managed to rescue his reputation with this extensive, lovingly created, overview of 23 foreign photographers who'd worked in the UK. Some as visitors. Some living here.

This attempt to catch the social, cultural, and political identity of our nation begins with Austria's Edith Tudor-Hart. She came to the UK in the 30s in a wave of immigration that also saw Hungarian Bauhaus professor and artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy move over. Like Moholy-Nagy she had the modernist credentials but she was also a committed Communist who, whilst living in London, worked as a Soviet agent. Despite working for the nominal enemy she pursued a radical and reforming agenda in her work which focused on public health, housing, and child welfare. She worked from her home in Brixton and her subjects were the local street markets, demonstrations, and the slum housing some of her doctor husband's patients called home.

L'Oeil du siecle, the eye of the century, Henri Cartier-Bresson said if you caught the right moment a solitary picture can become an entire story in itself. Like Tudor-Hart he also had Communist affiliations so it seems a trifle incongruous that he moved over to the UK in  1937 to take snaps at the relucant King George VI's coronation for the French magazine Regards. Turning his lens away from the pomp and ignoring ceremony he focused on the ordinary people in the crowd. He repeated this trick both for Princess Anne's 1973 wedding and the Silver Jubilee. Between these royal assignments he worked on a quite out of character Parresque series, Blackpool (1962), of overweight tourists, women in curlers, and the like.

Swiss-American Robert Frank settled his gaze on both London and Wales. Very specific parts of each. In London the world of banking and in Wales that of coal mining. Poles apart of course. It's instructive that the raw intimacy of his Welsh work is lacking in his slightly soulless snaps of the capital's financial elite. It hints very clearly where he felt most at ease.

Another Communist (starting to see a theme here?) was New York's Paul Strand. After a spell in France he set his romantic socialist vision for 3 months in the Outer Hebrides. His '62 Tir a'Mhurain (Gaelic for Land of the Bendy Grass) series was set against a Cold War backdrop. Uist had been announced as the site of a nuclear missile firing range. He saw the islanders struggle as symbolising humanity's attempt to come to terms with the modernity forced upon it by capitalism.

Dutchman Cas Oorthuys also moved in leftist circles. Of course he did. Originally trained as an architect his photography career saw him produce pocket travel guides for London and Oxford. Similarly to others already mentioned, and indicative surely of Parr's guiding hand, he moved quickly from gown to town when in the city of dreaming spires. Rather than cloistered privilege he turned to those working in the Austin-Morris factory and those visiting to attend CND demonstrations. He also had an eye for the odd and snapped bowler hats, milk bottles, and bus stop queues.

Between 1958 & 1959 the Chilean Sergio Larrain stayed in London. He experienced the city as a flaneur taking long walks and riding around on buses and tubes. He used the skills he'd honed in Santiago to frame the Great Wen through the prism of Latin American surrealism. Like Oorthuys he found magic in the mundane. Pubs, gambling, and weary commuters became regular subject matter and he was also alive to London's burgeoning multiculturalism.

A few years later hands were held across the ocean as US emigre Evelyn Hofer was commissioned to work with British writer V.S.Pritchett on the book London Perceived, an attempt to capture the capital's habits, characters, tastes, and emotions through the history of it's architecture. A bold and highly appealing venture and, pleasingly, a successful one. So much in fact that it was repeated for both New York and Dublin. Her images of lorry drivers, lollipop ladies, and milkmen certainly capture the era and the detail is so precise you can even see the crease in the pair of trousers of a Garrick waiter.

Another American looking at us Brits was Bruce Davidson. He saw in us things we didn't necessarily see in ourseleves. Our stoicism, whimsy, dress codes, and seaside rituals. Typically American he even dared to take colour photos, still something of a no-no for some now. He worked for Queen magazine on a series called 'Seeing Ourselves As An American Sees Us:A Picture Essay On Britain'. His editors were pretty relaxed about stuff so they gave him carte blanche to roam as he felt free. So he went to Brighton, Hastings, Whitby, Pitlochry, and Inverary which is a fairly arbitrary selection of destinations by anyone's standards.

Gian Butturini, the Italian ex-graphic designer, stayed pretty much in London where he'd arrived at the end of the swinging sixties. In what is clearly the overarching theme of this exhibition he turned away from Carnaby Street and majored on the destitute, disenfranchised, and marginalised. The flipside to the psychedelic dream that's still sidelined in reportage now. Nuclear weapons were proliferating faster than sexual freedoms and the doors of perception opened by recreational drug use had slammed shut behind an unfortunate few trapping them in prisons of addiction.

Frank Habicht didn't look at things with quite such a wry eye but he worked in similar areas. The German wasn't so interested in the boutiques of the King's Road as the lives of those that passed through. These became the source material of his We Live in London and Young London:Permissive Paradise collections.

Another photographer moving to London (this time from the US) in the sixties was Garry Winogrand. He'd just had a hit show at MOMA so he was hot for sure. A fast moving street photographer delighting in the wacky and banal. Skinny ties, bagpipes, and monocles populate the lens of his Leica but, if anything, it's probably the most dated stuff in the entire show. Such is fashion.

Candida Hofer was also a fashion victim. But in a much nicer way. Tempted by The Beatles and Ginsberg's claim that it was 'the centre of consciousness of the human universe' she moved to Liverpool. It seems she soon saw through this facade and averted her gaze to the docks, the industrial wastelands, and to the young children of the city. Her works tell a story of a young woman finding her way in a new city and are all the more affecting for it.

Japanese photojournalist Akihiko Okamura had a far more dramatic reason for moving to Ireland. He'd been expelled from Vietnam for his provocative work and was given the more tranquil task of tracing JFK's family history. This obviously didn't hold his attention for long as he was soon out and about on the streets of Belfast and Derry taking pictures of the 'troubles'. His outsider's eye and assumed neutrality allowing him both access and balance that home based documentation struggled with.

His countryman Shinro Ohtake arrived in London in 1977. Just in time for the jubilee (where it's to be assumed he didn't run into Cartier-Bresson) and The Sex Pistols. Again he was less interested in the big news stories and more in the minutiae of life. He seemed to have a penchant for the blank spaces, the abandoned shops, deserted side streets, and derelict workshops. He perhaps captures better than any the strangeness of a new land. He later went on to find fame as a collage maker. His collages consisting of sweet wrappers, bus tickets, matchboxes etc; A nod to Kurt Schwitters perhaps but a singular talent indeed.

Jim Dow (USA) was Walker Evans' assistant and he was also fascinated with the peculiarities of the other. Particularly, in his case, the vernacular architecture of our nation of shopkeepers. Between 1980 and 1994 he worked on a series of Corner Shops of Britain. They've got something of the Bernd and Hilla Becher about them. In fact the Becher's hover over this exhibition with almost as much presence as Parr himself. Candida Hofer, who we met earlier, having studied with them in Dusseldorf eight years before her Scouse odyssey.

Another of their alumni ('73-'81) was Axel Hutte. The German's documents of social housing clearly bear the hallmarks of the Becher's surveys. The precision so overwhelming at times it borders on abstraction.

Rineke Dijkstra came from Holland to Liverpool and took photos of young women in skimpy outfits in that city's Buzz Club. The unflattering light lends the portraits a cruelty that reflects, I think, badly on the photographer rather than the subject. This is where I have problems with Parr himself on occasions. It's a blip in an otherwise edifying experience.

American Tina Barney's attempts to draw parallels, in her portraits, with the works of the Old Masters via heavy use of colour and props doesn't quite come off either.

Far far better is Raymond Depardon's Glasgow series. As part of a series on European cities fallen by the wayside, in the wake of Thatcherism and before regeneration, it would've been very easy for his work to have taken a sneering approach. It's to his credit that he found humanity, and beauty of a sort, where the Iron Lady could never have done.

USA's Bruce Gilden did take very very unflattering shots of the folk he found loitering around West Midlands bus stations. Their faces seemingly etched with the scars of both their own personal, and the region's industrial, decline. I'll let you be the judge as to the rights and wrongs of this.

Certainly a more positive look at working class life came from Hans Van Der Meer. The Dutchman followed his series of Holland lower league matches with surveys of the same traditions in other European countries, including, below, the north of England. His application of Dutch landscape technique to the quotidian pastime of football making it all the more affecting.

Van Der Meer, along with Depardon and Ohtake, occupy the podium places as far as I'm concerned for this show but there are many other reasons for getting along to this highly recommended exhibition and only a couple for keeping away. Parr's reputation, as a curator at least, is safe for now and it's a nice touch that he's added a little library at the end where, if 250 photos isn't enough for you, you can look at just as many again.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Electronic Superhighway to Hell

The first two things I saw as I entered the Whitechapel Gallery were a photoshopped, enlarged, ladies bum and a game of Pac-man. This should've given me an idea that what was to come was not your everyday narrative or cookie cutter curatorship.

Korean media art pioneer Nam June Paik coined the term Electronic Superhighway in 1974 and this show focuses on half a century of the interface between art and technology. The fact that the organisers have decided to tell the story backwards from 2016 to 1966 is hardly the most maverick aspect of this brave, if ultimately frustrating, study.

Olaf Breuning's aforementioned Text Butt from 2015 greets you on entry, if you'll excuse the pun, with its critical look at the digital manipulation of images of our own bodies. Generation X novelist Douglas Coupland also, as you may expect, takes an interest into ownership and rights of our own on-line representation and proposes solutions, of sorts, to, possibly uncalled for, facial recognition software in Deep Face (2014), below.

The first room is laid out in higgledy-piggledy fashion which makes it accessible to those who just want to nose around and less so for those who have some grand idea of writing about it afterwards. How to fit in Jon Rafman's lovely, but seemingly unconnected to anything else in the exhibition, Manet Economy Class, above? Why's it here?

I assume because Rafman has dabbled in computer generated arts before. His Zabludowicz show at the back end of last year combined ball crawls, soft porn, and soundtracks from Oneohtrix Point Never. It was very jolly and although the impressionistic train carriage was no doubt generated using modern technology it's not the most cutting edge example imaginable.

Novi Sad's Alexandra Domanovic's recent models of the Belgrade hand made more sense. Seen, at the time (just before the break up of Yugoslavia), as an example of that nation's technological dynamism these model hands now hold universal symbols of peace:- the dove, the yin and yang symbol, that kind of thing.

James Bridle's Homo Sacer is fun. One of those hologram airport ladies who, instead of niceties and advice not to walk up the escalator with your luggage, quote vaguely threatening lines from UK, EU, and UN, legislation about citizenship.

It's a neat piece. As is James Lund's VIP (Viewer Improved Paintings) which lets you, the viewer, to a degree, decide what kind of artwork to look at. It consists of two screens which both reflect different abstracted images. A camera traces which one has caught your attention. As they, and your gaze, change accordingly a computer tracks your preferences with the remit of eventually finding the artwork just right for you.

Of course the technologies and algorithms work just as well as those Facebook 'quizzes' that tell you you look like Brad Pitt, should live in Brazil, and need to marry your sister, but it's diverting enough.

The same could be said for Zach Blas's Queer Technologies (2007-2010). A mocked up showroom that proposes gay bombs and queer anti-programming languages whilst doffing it's leather cap to Derek Jarman at all times.

There are over 100 works on show here by 70+ artists so they're not all gonna get a mention. You'd probably need to stay here the best part of a week just to watch all the different videos. German artist Hito Steyerl's 2007 Red Alert won't detain you long though - and for that be thankful. He simply pays homage to Rodchenko's black square by using three screens of red rectangles referencing our current, almost permanent, state of being at the highest level of terror alert.

Ascending the stairs to the upper galleries signifies, with this exhibition, a trip back in time. The first room you enter is populated with early examples of Net Art which began about '93 when web browsers became widely available and like all technology before and after were subverted to our own ends. Nothing could be more self-explanatory than Aristarkh Chernyshev's Loading. It's simple form an antidote to some of the more pompous efforts available for your perusal.

For example JODI's works about html and Google maps. I found these as confusing as the things they referenced. That may be because I'm an ageing technophobe who puts the battery in his phone upside down. Either way they didn't do much for me. Neither, thankfully, did Ann Hirsch's Twelve which resembles nothing as much as a pre-pubescent girl's bedroom.

After taking the above photo I got out of there as quickly as any middle aged man taking photos of a schoolgirl's bedroom would do.

Only to enter the most perplexing, bewildering room of all. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's plasma screen eye, old computers and software strewn around, and our spirit guide Nam June Paik's 52 monitor Internet Dream from '94 blasting out something that would've given David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth a headache.

It was all getting very confusing. This mish-mash of 60s and 70s video art, Ray Ascott's 'game' of exquisite corpse, jerky jumpy videos, screens, more screens, even more bloody screens. It all got a bit too much. I started to feel like Lorna in Cleveland artist Lynn Hershman Leeson's installation. Freaked out and overwhelmed by sheer data glut and information overload and retreating to a reclusive existence where tv and tv games represent some sort of golden past.

Although that almost definitely wasn't what Leeson intended at the time the LORNA room certainly felt like a sanctuary from the white noise of technology - and as the fictional Lorna was 40 it was probably a more appropriate room for a man of my age to lie low in than the earlier pink one.

After Lorna had nursed me back to health I cautiously stepped into the final room of the show. Respite. Despite Hiroshi Kawano's claims, boasts even, about adopting an IBM 'child' it was mostly full of good old fashioned modern art. Computer generated yes but modern art nonetheless. Vera Molnar's homages to Bela Bartok and Bath's Peter Sedgeley's Coronas from 1970 hung next to Manfred Mohr's digital algorithms. Best still was Roy Ascott's Change Painting (1968), below. A vast improvement on the works of his I'd seen in earlier rooms.

One of the last things you read before leaving is Stan Van Der Beek's 1968 claim that one day in the future we may be able to write a movie on our telephone. That day clearly has come. But we do need to make sure, as we ever did, that the movie we're writing isn't shit.

That same year the Whitechapel itself held an exhibition looking at the interface between technology and art. It was called Cybernetic Serendipity. No doubt many of the patrons enjoyed it. No doubt many of them left utterly bewildered. Much like the exhibition I reach back in time and share both their confusion and fascination.

Everything changes.

Everything stays the same.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Fleapit revisited:Dheepan

With his last four films (Read My Lips, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, A Prophet, and Rust and Bone) Jacques Audiard has slowly revealed himself to be one of the best directors working in not just French, but all, cinema today. What you might call an auteur.

I was all set to catch his new Palme d'Or winning film Dheepan and was extra pleased that my mate Shep, who has taken an interest in Sri Lankan affairs since a visit there some years back, was keen to join me.

Dheepan himself, played by Anthonythasan Jesuthasan, is a Tamil fighter who, having fled the fighting after seeing way too much death, teams up with a woman a few years younger than him, Yalini (Kalieswari Srinivasan), and a nine year old girl, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), in a refugee camp. There they pretend to be family so they can claim asylum in France. Despite Yalini's preference for moving to the UK to be with her sister.

In France they move into a scarily run down estate blatantly scarred by violence and with no trace of any police, and barely any other women and children. All three of them struggle with even basic French but still Dheepan takes a job as a caretaker whilst Illayaal enrols, with some difficulties, into a local school, and Yalini finds work cooking and cleaning for Monsieur Habib (Faouzi Bensaidi). A severely disabled man who is unable to talk and gives his spare room over to a gang of obvious ne'er-do-wells.

Yalini's very good at her job. Dheepan's reasonable at his. Even Illayaal starts to get on well at school. Homelife's not so easy however as the lines between pretend and real family blur. Both in reality and in their minds.

During this 'family' drama stage of the film there are some incredibly touching moments. All the cast are great but Srinivasan portrays her character's mix of confusion, humanity, and fierce independence so winningly it's heart-warming.

Just as things seem to be improving for them Monsieur Habib's son Brahim returns and a turf war in and around the estate escalates. Dheepan can't help being drawn in. As if he's become instituionalized by the violence he'd seen, and been involved in, in Sri Lanka. It appears the film is making parallels between a Sri Lankan civil war and gang violence in the Parisian suburbs but the latter seems to lack any political dimension whatsoever.

Hence it's often a little confusing what's happening but I think and hope Audiard is trying to show us how this lifestyle must feel for outsiders trying to escape their own desperate circumstances.

Vincent Rottiers who plays Brahim is wonderful. At turns utterly terrifying and then concerned with Yalini's wellbeing. He's like a timebomb waiting to explode but then so many of the characters are. Both those central and peripheral to the narrative.

To say any more would be getting into spoiler territory but it's a fascinating, if flawed, and absorbing piece of film making. Nicolas Jaar's score is effective and only intrusive when necessary. There's a couple of background storylines that don't bring much to the party and, after a promising start, Vinasithamby is a little underused.

It's pretty violent for a 15 certificate but even though the film depicts lifestyles that glamourise violence the violence itself always feels brutal, scary, and, quite often, utterly random.

Like every other Audiard film I've seen I'd recommend. This time with some minor reservations.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Cosmic abstractions in Kensington Gardens.

Ice cream vans on Exhibition Road. Cafes spilling out into the street. Sunbathers by the Albert Memorial. The walk from South Kensington tube station to the Serpentine Gallery on a warm spring afternoon is another of London's delights.

As is a visit to said gallery, a quaint converted tea house of manageable proportions showing a selection of modern international art with a handy bookshop and a pavilion by a leading architect each summer.

At the moment they're hosting a retrospective of Hilma af Klint. A Swedish artist who until very recently I knew nothing about. She lived from 1862 to 1944 and studied from 1882 to 1887 at Stockholm's Royal Academy of Fine Arts.

She became an established landscape and portrait artist but this is not what she's known for now. Whilst these works paid the bills she secretly beavered away on depictions of the unseen, and let's face it non-existent, realms of the spiritual and occult.

In a proto-feminist fashion she formed an all female group. De Fem (the Five) conducted seances and experimented with automatic writing (decades before the Surrealists). They were inspired by Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophy and Madame Blavatsky's theosophy. Movements and philosophies I'm fairly ignorant about. Perhaps some study is due.

The Paintings For The Temple (1906-1916), now seen as her most important body of work, comprises 193 predominately abstract pieces. These abstractions predate Malevich, Mondrian, and Kandinsky. It's highly debatable what constitutes pure abstraction but Klint is certainly a contender for the world's first abstract artist.

This bulk of this exhibition consists of works from that series, for example Altarpieces:Series X (1915) below, which was Klint's attempt to resolve a fundamental duality in our nature. The dualities of good and evil, woman and man, matter and spirit, science and religion, microcosm and macrocosm.

Spirals and sequences were vital to her work. She even designed a spiral temple to house her works. The spirals often taking on a snail like appearance. Birds too. In Dove (1915), below, and in her tessellated swan painting she drew on the iconography of avian life found within esoteric symbolism, alchemy, and Christianity.

In fact symbolism of all sorts is rife in her work. Triangles denoted enlightenment. The letter W represented matter and U stood for spiritual. Yellow meant masculine, blue feminine, and an area of green represented a unity of the sexes. She made reference to German poet Goethe's diagrammatic colour wheels.

She wasn't completely away with the fairies though. She held down a job as a draftswoman at Stockholm's veterinary institute and, while there, she painted The Ten Largest (Adulthood (1907), below). A work on an epic scale which represented the four ages of humankind over two handfuls worth of paintings, eight of them presented here. They're draped in floral and biological imagery and make up the centre piece of the show.

The gallery is fleshed out with notebooks, studies of mosses and lichen, some later works, and watercolours. She chose not to exhibit any of these works while alive and stipulated a twenty year period of grace after her death which became forty two. Her works were first shown in public as recently as 1986.

While some of her ideas may seem like mumbo-jumbo to our more scientifically attuned minds it's instructive to note that, in her time, dissemination of information was not so readily available and advances in x-rays and electromagnetic waves seemed almost magical to many.

There's no excuse to believe that kind of thing now but there's every reason to get along to Kensington to check out the work of this curious, brave, pioneering artist and if you fancy an ice cream and a bit of sunbathing too you're in the right place.

Ha det sa kul.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Astratto ma no espressionistica.

One of London's more pleasant art excursions is the one I sometimes take to the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art on Canonbury Square, a short walk from Highbury & Islington tube station. Founded by Italian emigre Eric Estorick and his wife Salome it aims to showcase 20th century art from his fatherland.

It does the job pretty well. They've hosted exhibitions by artists of the calibre of Modigliani, Morandi, and Fontana as well as focusing on subjects as diverse as ceramic painting, aeronautics, and satire. The gallery's small so there's usually time for a look round its pleasant environs too. Canonbury Square and the New River Walk are favourites. There's some lovely local pubs like The Canonbury Arms and The Compton Arms for post-art debrief and emotional stocktaking. There's also a selection of pleasant Italian restaurants, Trevi for example, which seem like thematically apt venues to wind down after a fix of culture.

The current show, and the last one before the gallery undergoes refurbishment, is Astrazione Oggettiva:The Experience of Colour. It's a niche experience for sure focusing on a a group of painters from the Trentino region who, in the autumn of 1976, published their Manifesto of Objective Abstraction. A reaction against what they saw as the superficiality of contemporary culture. In today's debate against dumbing down this sounds all too familiar.

The artists in question were Mauro Cappelletti, Diego Mazzonelli, Gianna Pellegrini, Aldo Schmid, Luigi Senesi, and Giuseppe Wenter Marini and they called for renewed attention to the painterly process and its fundamentally abstract concerns.

They each possessed their own vision and style but they were united by a desire to make colour their focal point. Instinct was set aside in favour of discipline and control resulting in an intentionally impersonal art that looked for little or no emotional response from the viewer.

Schmid and Senesi died in a train crash between Florence and Bologna only two years later and this brought a premature end to the movement. So this show, the first ever in the UK, is really a glimpse into a very brief, very geographically specific, movement.

It's accepted now that they were related to earlier avant-garde tendencies such as that of concrete painting and inspired by Vasarely's optical-perceptual research. This viewer saw echoes of Barnett Newman's abstracts (without any of the expressionism, natch), Bridget Riley's op-art, and, even in places, late Matisse.

Senesi (Horizontal Margins from 1977, below) worked light as surely as Turner or Joseph Wright of Derby, his works winningly lambent against the textbook white gallery walls. Though as nugatory as any art they're still strangely warming.

Pellegrini's soft pastel shades resemble nothing less than wallpaper. Pretty wallpaper but wallpaper nonetheless. It was Mazzonelli who came closest to figurative art, almost breaking the mould with his Untitled (Triptych) from 1976.

The same artist's Surface-Structure-Colour-6 Elements (1977) resembles a colour chart of sorts. But with zips whereas Cappelletti's Directional Flourishes used minute orange stripes for delineation and decoration, sometimes painted on the side, rather than the face, of the canvas.

Schmid's Contrasts subtly blurred one colour into another though, as if in hock to the group aesthetic, keeping that all important line straight down the middle.

So what's it all about? It's hard to say. Art for art's sake I guess. L'arte per l'arte! It's interesting. It's pretty. But, unless you're the type to meditate in the Rothko room, it's a brief experience. Possibly appropriate for a movement so fleeting.

I took the opportunity to visit some of my old faves in the permanent collection. Ardengo Soffici's Deconstruction of the Planes of a Lamp (1912-13), Umberto Boccioni's Dynamism of a Cyclist (1913), and Mario Sironi's Urban Landscape from 1924.

As ever, with the Estorick, it was a rewarding, intellectually fulfilling visit. I'd recommend a look. Around the exhbition, around the gallery, and around the area.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Protest and survive.

Peter Kennard's Wikipedia entry contains glowing reference from Naomi Klein, John Berger, and Banksy so it won't come as any surprise that his current retrospective at the Imperial War Museum doesn't serve any jingoistic flag waving ends. Quite the opposite.

His career begins, as does the exhbition, in 1968. It was during that year of worldwide revolt that the young painter, influenced by Francis Bacon, Giacometti, Goya, and Rembrandt abandoned his brushes for photomontage. There he sought inspiration in the Dadaists and the anti-Nazi collage work of John Heartfield.

That same year, whilst still studying at the Slade school of art, saw his first major work. Stop is a collection of borderline abstractions using paper and magazine photos of the Vietnam war, Prague spring, and the student riots in Paris.

This leads us to a room crammed with archival material of Kennard's. Commenting either directly, or obtusely, on issues like the Chilean junta (and the West's role in keeping it in power), Cold War tensions, Apartheid, and the divisive policies of Margaret Thatcher.

There are illustrations from The Guardian, New Statesman, and New Scientist and examples of the kind of work he offered up to the GLC and CND. His anti-Murdoch, anti-nuclear, anti-imperialist, pro-Solidarnosc stance was captured by front pages for those publications, Stop the War posters, and playful, but hard hitting montages juxtaposing scenes both idyllic and dystopian. The most notorious example being his reimagining of Constable's Haywain.

At the end of the Cold War he started to address the New World Order while, at the same time, moving into three dimensional works. 1997's Reading Room ponders the global power of finance.

Smudged, blurred, charcoal faces rendered indstinct stand on old library style lecterns as if to emphasise the individual's powerlessness and loss of self when confronted by the might of the markets.

Equally anonymous though far more contemplative is the Face series from 2002-2003. It's a surprise about turn for Kennard to create something so personal. He claimed an urge to reconnect with the human form and, after so much time spent observing the worst excesses of human nature, who could blame him? That he did so very much on his own terms is testament to his confidence as an artist.

The chief selling point of this exhibition, which is free anyway by the way, is last year's Boardroom installation created especially for the Imperial War Museum and this show. A personal reflection of five decades of conflict from Vietnam to Iraq.

The entire room is full of suspended images from events and wars familiar to us all. Interspersed amongst them are glass panels bearing statistics that reveal current levels of arms sales and expenditure and the extent of poverty in today's world. It's mind-boggling, depressing, and enlightening. In that it is typical of the man and his vision.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

A new career in a new town

When I was about 15 years old I had a day out in London with a couple of mates. Were we looking to get drunk on cider in the park? Meet girls? Go to a club? I wouldn't have had the first idea of how to do any of those things so, instead, I suggested we buy a notepad and some pens and jot down the names and details of all the statues we saw. Obviously my friends laughed at me and quickly vetoed this motion.

Well I'm having the last laugh now as that's not far off what I'm doing here. Little did I know at the time I didn't need to come to the capital to do it either. For public art is all around us. Often in the much maligned new towns many of us grew up in and call home. Somerset House's Out There:Our Post-War Public Art is a long overdue attempt to take a comprehensive, if partial, view of this. I thank Jackie Bates for drawing it to my attention and her and Matt for coming along to the exhibition with me and adding valuable expertise and opinion to my words below.

Upon leaving the neoclassical courtyard of Somerset House you're presented immediately with a flavour of things to come with Lynn Chadwick's bronze Trigon, made for Harlow town centre, standing in the foyer.

The exhibition is laid out over a handful of rooms consisting of architectural models, sculptures, posters etc; and, to Jackie's delight, Letraset information posted directly to the wall. We kick off with the 1951 Festival of Britain:all figurative sculptures, maquettes and water features. If there's one thing I like it's a water feature.

Predictably there was a backlash. The Aberdeen Evening Press commented "modern art is, like the atom bomb, a dangerous invention". You can judge the wisdom of these words by having a look at Arthur Fleischman's terracotta Maquette for Miranda, below, which, along with F E Williams' 1955 The Sisters is a highlight of the first room. It was eventually sited at the entrance of Leamington Spa's Lockheed Factory.

Around this time Battersea Park was hosting open air sculpture shows which sounds like something I'd have enjoyed very much. Harlow new town was designated a 'sculpture town' and there's even a cute model of Frederick Gibberd's design of the town centre. He said Harlow should, one day, be compared to Florence. Obviously that's still a long way off but an exhibition like this is one small footstep in that direction.

Is it possible that one day tourists will flock to Harlow to see Gerda Rubinstein's City, above, in the same way they fill the Uffizi? Even a fan like me thinks that's highly unlikely but a reassessment of the post-war period of public building is inevitable and ongoing.

There's a great film of locals being interviewed in Bethnal Green at the unveiling of a modernist sculpture. The responses are more varied than you may imagine. Some are even positive. It's all very Mr Cholmondley-Warner. Typical of the style under discussion is F E McWilliams' Study for the Witch of Agnesi which stood at Avery Hill Training College in Woolwich.

Most of the public art was for the people - and paid for by the people. Other examples were privately funded. William Mitchell's doors for Liverpool's Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King fall into this category. They gained Grade II listed status in 1964.

Another is Geoffrey Clarke's 1958-1961 Spirit of Electricity, above, which became part of Thorn House, the HQ of Thorn Electrical Industries on Upper Saint Martin's Lane, Covent Garden. I walked past it many times on my way to work and barely paid it heed.

Big hitters of the art world got involved. Barbara Hepworth's Winged Figure worthy of its place both in the pantheon of her work and in the history of public art. It may seem odd to compare such a piece to the architecture of Stevenage bus station but that's what this exhibition does with no little pizzazz. There's rich pickings here for fans of retro fonts too. Most notably in a short film that espouses art for all, art for motorways, art for factories, art for schools.

That's the oft-repeated mantra of artist Bob and Roberta Smith who crops up to eulogise about public sculpture along with Tate director Nicholas Serota and, most pertinently, some members of the public themselves (far too often left out of the conversations that affect their lives) who reminisce about climbing on the modernist sculptures as kids. This inclusivity is warming as a small part of me felt uneasy about the ethics of imposition.

So much of the public art of the era has gone now. I miss the fountains at the bottom of Centrepoint on Tottenham Court Road and always feel a pang of yearning for them when old film footage shows people bathing in them on impossibly hot and distant days.

I wonder if the citizens of Birmingham feel the same about Nicholas Monro's King Kong. The mighty ape once stood proud in that city's Bullring before setting up outside a car dealer, also in Brum. From there Kong moved to Ingliston Market in Edinburgh where he was painted, first in tartan, then in pink. The wanderer now resides in someone's front garden in Penrith.

Armada Way, Plymouth saw one of the more esoteric examples of public art in Liliane Lijn's See Thru Koan from 1969, above. It was based on a riddle given to Buddhist monks but it must've been equally puzzling to Devonians out for a day's shopping.

Bob and Roberta Smith crops up again towards the end. He's got the best part of a room to himself to tell the story of Henry Moore's Old Flo. She was sited originally in Stepney's Stifford Estate. On demolition of that estate Tower Hamlets council hoped to raise up to £20,000,000 from her sale. A campaign to save Old Flo was initiated and she was kept for the nation. Alas, like so many in the capital, she is now homeless.

Public art's still going up and we end our tour with a look at some models for Anthony Gormley's Room from 2004. Much like Geoffrey Clarke's Spirit of Electricity, earlier, it's basically an addendum, an adornment, to an existing structure.  This time London's Beaumont Hotel. Gormley claims he hopes to "confront the monumental with most personal, intimate experience".

That's not as pretentious as it initially sounds. In fact it sounds like a pretty sweet policy for art creation. Or indeed creation of any type. With sound principles in place from the onset we can create little gems of small beauty. The curators, in their own way, have done that with this show as surely as many of the artists, architects, and planners they seek to highlight. A small triumph.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Painting with Big George.

My one experience of Venice is hardly of the picture postcard variety. I saw no gondolas. I saw no canals. I didn't see the Palazzo Ducale. Nor the Rialto bridge. I simply sat around Venice coach station for an hour waiting for a shuttle to take me to Treviso airport so Ryanair staff could be rude to me.

Had I been in La Dominante 520 years earlier maybe I'd have crossed paths with Giorgio Barbarelli de Castelfranco, better known as Giorgione, who was born 40 miles inland in the town of Castelfranco Veneto in 1478 and spent most of his life in the City of Bridges. A short life it was too as he died in 1510, possibly of plague, in his early thirties.

Such brief floruit causes problems of attribution for art historians and very few works have been confirmed as being by this master's hand. Because of this the Royal Academy's new 'In the Age of Giorgione' show also contains works by contemporaries like Sebastian del Piombo and Lorenzo Lotto.

Despite his relatively small output he's seen as a vital cog in the chain of High Renaissance artists. Inspired by Bellini, virtually contemporaneous with Titian, and an influence on both Leonardo and Durer. It was a changing art world Giorgione operated in. New, wealthy patrons were commissioning works and the artists, themselves, were attempting, via their portraiture, to not simply capture a likeness but to convey something of the mental state of the sitter.

This exhibition kicks of with two rooms of such portraits. A lot of them don't half look like fey, androgynous, indie boys.

The work by Giorgione himself, above, for example. There's also a striking Giovanni Carini, a Lorenzo Lotto sketch that my Royal Academy enabler and friend Kathy particularly took a shine to. Equally shiny is the future Duke of Urbino's helmet in which you can see him reflected. My smutty gag aside it's a very homoerotic portrait. Kind of how I imagine the decor to a Chariots sauna looks.

We're also introduced to lutenists, a sad man cradling a citrus fruit, a bizarre selection of fingerless gloves, and Titian's Goldman portrait.

On reaching the tertiary chamber we find landscapes. At last. Both in exhibition and art historical terms. Domenico and Giulio Campagnola's pen and inks set the scene for del Piombo's Birth of Adonis and also his Death of Adonis which fans of both boars and togas will not find disappointing. Giorgione's Il Tramonto has got a lot going on. It's strange how he's allowed a spindly tree to dominate the centre of the painting whilst relegating St George on horseback, engaged in spearing some woodland creature rather than a dragon, to the background.

His Trial of Moses, above, is even more hectic and odd. The guy in the feathered helmet appears to have moobs and be wearing a mini skirt showing off a rather fine set of pins. There's more codpieces than a Cameo fan convention and the infant Moses is depicted as opting for hot coals over gold coins. Each to their own. It's a fascinating study in how the art of the time served to both instruct and entertain.

Next up is a meeting with old gallery favourite St Jerome courtesy of Lorenzo Lotto. The lion in the background almost camouflaged against the rocks and a secondary sanctified hermit hovering in the middle distance. Another glimpse into the strangeness of the time.

Walking into the next room it's like someone's switched the lights on. The devotional works are a riot of colour. There's a lot of virgins and children, obvs, and plenty of chances to examine Mary's impressive drapery. Which isn't a euphemism.

Titian's Jacopo Pesaro Being Presented By Pope Alexander VI To St Peter impressed both Kathy and I with the masterful effect of light on his holiness's cope. I almost wanted to reach out and run my hands over it which I imagine would be considered a serious breach of papal etiquette. Infallible ambassadors of supreme and non-existent beings are probably not there to be fondled by godless heathens such as myself.

Despite the painstaking detail given over to vestments etc; it's instructive to note that the fleet of Cypriot warships departing to partake in a crusade against the Turks is so lightly applied. I wondered if perhaps Giorgione employed people to do the backgrounds for him. I don't know.

Other details were vague too. It didn't really bother me as I didn't feel a desire for a closer look at the blurry cherubim with their tiny willies out but it was interesting that the detail of the lutes was more precise than that of angelic beings. We got distracted at this point by a discussion about the difference between lutes and ouds. Once balalaikas and bouzoukis got involved it was time to return to the art. Saint Peter, again, and Christ's Blessing by Carini where, it has to be said, Jesus looks a bit of a dick.

The concluding room is given over to allegorical portraits. Some of belles which were idealised female portraits. Perhaps an early example of the male gaze. Tullio Lombardo's marble relief of Bacchus and Ariadne stood out by virtue of being the only three dimensional exhibit in the entire show. But most strange of all was a portrait of Saint Agatha carrying a pair of tits on a plate. A helpful gallery goer explained these were her 'attributes' and she was normally portrayed with them. Man, those biblical times were, er, biblical weren't they!?

Nearly as bloodthirsty is Carini's painting of Judith's maid after the killing of the drunken Assyrian general Holofernes. It's not explained why during this act she decided to flash a pert bosom. There's a couple of pastoral Titian shepherding portrayals and a work by Dosso Dossi whose name satisfies me greatly before we reach the final painting.

After the idealised women and fetishised gore it's a crone. A crone on loan. A crone on loan from the Galleria dell'Accademia reminding viewers at the time, and us now, that all beauty dies, all youth dies, everything dies. On that cheery note we strolled off down to Waterstones for a coffee and to fill our pockets with their complimentary chocolates. Thanks La Vecchia.

Col tempo.

Col tempo.