Monday, 27 February 2017

Turner & the age of British watercolour.

Petworth House is a grand old pile in West Sussex. For centuries it was the seat of the noble Percy family and now it's owned by the National Trust. The pretty, and pretty extensive, grounds are home to the largest herd of fallow deer in England and the baroque country house itself contains Grinling Gibbons' wood-carvings and a large, somewhat dusty looking, art collection housing many works by JMW Turner who had a studio in the building.

Raymond Noire had invited me along to see their temporary exhibition, Turner & the age of British Watercolour, and I'd gratefully accepted. The show was being hosted in one medium sized room in the servant's quarters. An area I'd probably feel more at home in anyway.

I'm a huge fan of Turner but I've never been overenamoured with watercolours so it was very much a game of two halves for me. Whilst I could appreciate the talent, the subject matter, the views, and the stories behind the works on show some of it was, undoubtedly, a little chocolate boxy. Like something my gran would've had on a biscuit tin.

Split into two sections, British Life and Landscape and The Lure of the Continent, the first work to really catch my eye was Turner's A First Rate Taking In Stores (1818, below). It showed how the master was able to imbue his watercolours with almost blinding light. So much does it capture the essence of its maritime scene that you can almost feel the salty spray of the brine against your skin.

It's quite a contrast to the lugubrious twilight of John Glover's Lancaster (1820). While Turner celebrates the sun being high in the sky Glover gives us the feeling of the day coming to an end and, as such, it's a mournful, evocative rendering of an early 19c landscape.

John Sell Cotman was of the Norwich school but, in the tradition of the Grand Tour, he ventured much further afield. Falaise, Normandy, Entrace to the City (1823) makes good use of the pale houses and bleached lights of the continent. Further south, in Switzerland, Turner painted the Great Falls of Reichenbech (in 1804) where Moriarty fell to his death after a fight with Sherlock Holmes in Conan Doyle's The Final Problem nearly ninety years later.

Even more impressive, both scenically and painterly, is John Robert Cozens' In the Canton of Unterwalden (1776-1778). These Swiss peaks given a romantic gloss that's not too far from Cozens' German contemporary Caspar David Friedrich.

The Napoleonic Wars at the start of the nineteenth century did their best to ruin the jolly travels (or working tours) of these artists but the exhibition has been curated so that it's fairly difficult to get any feeling of a time frame, or any sense of artistic development, from it. There's plenty of nice paintings here but they don't really tell a story.

Richard Parkes Bonington (L'Institut, Paris, 1828, above) and Thomas Girtin (Palace of the Louvre 1801-1802, below) both died very young. In fact both became members of the 27 club. Bonington in 1828 of tuberculosis whilst Girtin's death was variously reported as being due to either asthma or 'ossification of the heart'. Turner had been a great admirer of Girtin, particularly, and had said of the man born in the same year as him, 1775, that had he "lived I should have starved". Bonington was born about six weeks before Girtin died and during a spell in France, where he befriended Eugene Delacroix, came under the influence of French painters who themselves had been influenced by Girtin. Ideas flowed freely back and forth across the channel as well they should.

Turner himself lived to a ripe old age. Back in Switzerland in 1841 he painted Town and Lake of Thun which shows his later, more gauzy, dreamy, proto-impressionist style to great effect. Artists were now painting as far afield as the Spanish city of Toledo but, oddly, the exhibition takes us back nearly half a century to Girtin's Jedburgh Abbey (1798-99). It's pleasant enough but it doesn't seem to be one of Girtin's best works and it seems a bit anticlimactic once we've seen late Turner nearing full bloom.

William Daniell's Westminster Bridge from the South, 1804, is a charming domestic piece and I enjoyed trying to square it with my knowledge of the area now. Where would Waterloo station be? What about the London Eye? The Houses of Parliament?

Turner painted the Bishop's Palace in Salisbury in 1799 when he was just 24 years old. That's nothing. There's a painting here he completed aged just sixteen. Having been both a prodigy and a man who continued painting, often radically, into his dotage there's a lot of Turner works spread around various galleries of London and the south. These weren't his best by any stretch but they were instructive in building up a clearer picture of the man and his methods and the inclusion of the likes of Girtin, Bonington, and Cozens helped place him within the wider context of the time. He's often seen as, and often was, a maverick. But sometimes, it seems, he was just one of many accomplished painters that were active as the eighteenth century turned into the nineteenth.

Fleapit revisited:Moonlight

I went to bed last night after watching Moonlight and when I woke up in the morning it'd won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Did it deserve it?

Although I personally preferred both Manchester by the sea and I, Daniel Blake I thought it was a worthy recipient and not just because considerably lesser films have scooped the gong in the past. Although it's great that Barry Jenkins' film (based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney) has as its protagonist a black gay male that alone would not have been enough to merit an award. What's reaped the film so much critical acclaim is, I believe, the fact it tells a simple, heartfelt, story in an innovative, yet affecting, way.

It tells the tale, in three parts, of Chiron. Growing up in a district of Miami with a name, Liberty City, that starts to look like a cruel irony as we see the mental prison the adults that surround Chiron have either built for themselves or had forced upon them by drugs and poverty. His mother Paula (an excellent turn by Naomie Harris) is dependent and emotionally abusive so he falls in with Cuban crack dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali completely deserving his Oscar despite his limited screen time) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae, also brilliant in a fairly unshowy role). Despite the nature of their business, and the fact they're responsible for keeping his mum hooked, Juan and Teresa are caring surrogates and slowly coax words out of the initially silent, and scared, young boy. Eventually they gently usher him towards learning how to make his own way in life.

There are many films that look back on idyllic childhoods but Moonlight succeeds best when it shows us how confusing, and often terrifying, the adult world is when viewed through a child's eyes. Not least a bullied child, unsure of their sexuality, and surrounded by addicts, criminals, and people who'd physically harm them for no reason at all.

As Chiron grows up we revisit his life two more times. Each actor who plays him (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) inhabits the role slightly differently. There's not huge physical similarities between them and as Chiron, even as a fully grown adult, is a man of few words all three actors need to be able to physically convey a great deal with their facial expressions and body language. They all pull it off. Hibbert's puppy dog eyes and Sanders' slumped shoulders suggest a child, and then young man, who's had their spirit broken. Rhodes (who plays the hip-hop loving, drug dealing Chiron after he's moved to Atlanta, Georgia) has to be more enigmatic to convey the impression of a lost child inside the body of a large, and potentially threatening, man.

We see Chiron unhappy in his home. We see him bullied mercilessly at school. He only seems to have one friend. Kevin (played by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and Andre Holland) is as loquacious as Chiron is taciturn. He boasts of his supposed exploits with girls, and, in a craven act of cowardice to save his own skin, joins in with the merciless bullying but there's clearly both an emotive and physical attraction between Kevin and Chiron. Will it be consummated?

I'm not going to tell you but I don't think it really matters. This is a film about growing up, finding what's right for you, and how difficult it is to shake off the demons that may attach themselves to you at a very young age. Aristotle once said "give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man". This film not only underlines that but capitalises it, italicises it, and highlights it with a marker pen. It speaks very slowly but it says a great deal worth hearing. The solitary tear that plots an uneven path down the adult Chiron's cheek as he speaks to his prematurely ageing mother in her Georgian treatment facility could be seen as a metaphor for the circuitous path that he, and all of us, have to navigate through a life that sometimes seems too painful to bear. It is great credit to Barry Jenkins and the cast of Moonlight that they could make this journey such an emotional one yet steer clear of schmaltz. Yeah, that award was deserved.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Guerilla Girls:Is it even worse in Europe?

The Guerrilla Girls are a group of anonymist feminist activists that wear gorilla masks in public to conceal their true identities. Each member of the Guerrilla Girls has taken, as their pseudonym, the name of a famous, and dead, woman artist from the past. There's a Frida Kahlo, there's a Kathe Kollwitz, a Lyubov Popova, and a Hannah Hoch. Their work, however, is not so much art as a statement about the sexism they believe, and fairly conclusively prove, is inherent in the art world.

The Whitechapel Gallery in east London has a room put aside looking at their back story and recent actions. Initially inspired to form after New York MOMA's 1984 exhibition International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture. Planned as a look at the most important contemporary artists in the world at that time it featured 169 male artists and only 13 female ones. To further compound this the show's curator Kynaston McShine said "that any artist who wasn't in the show should rethink his career".

Since then the Guerrilla Girls have been campaigning against and calling out sexism and racism in not just art but film, politics, and life in general. They've used culture jamming, handed out politicised handbills, and, most famously, produced a poster that asked 'Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?". The Whitechapel commission, Is it even worse in Europe?, revisits another poster, 1986's 'It's even worse in Europe' and collates data and responses they've amassed from surveying directors of art museums and public galleries across Europe.

They asked these institutions a selection of questions as regards to how many female artists they have in their collections, how many non-Western artists they have in their collections, if they'd ever run stats on diversity, and how many women they had on their staff etc; As well as providing space for said organisations, should they wish, to make comments. Rather depressingly, but oh too familiar in today's world, only 101 of the 383 museums and art spaces bothered to respond. You can see the list of those that did below:-

The Prado in Madrid claimed to keep internal statistics about the participation of women in their programmes but had an 87% male collection. Manchester Art Gallery replied that they "talk about these issues a lot" yet their collection was 80% male and 85% white. Poland came out best with more women artists in museum collections and more women in charge of those collections. Possibly a correlation there?

Only two museums had 40% or more women artists in their collection and 21 of the respondents had fewer than 20%. Seven of those were in Spain. Some galleries did include a lot of art from outside Europe and the US but had, in many cases, not been bold enough to host solo shows for artists from those regions yet. That, to me, would seem to be a case of market forces rather than out and out bias but if curators and managers live in fear things won't change quickly enough.

Of course, this opens the Guerrilla Girls, and me for writing about them I suppose, up to criticism of 'political correctness gone mad' but it doesn't seem mad to try and redress a clear and obvious imbalance. The Guerrilla Girls have been bold enough to exhibit complaints they'd received. Museum Sztuki from Lodz in Poland wondered why they hadn't asked about Eastern European artists. Kunsthalle Wien, Austria, made the perfectly valid point that solo exhibitions and visitor rankings were not the only markers they should be judged on and SCCA in Ljubljana complained the PDF form they'd been provided with did not allow/accept any letters that are not part of the English alphabet thus turning the criticism on its head and accusing the Guerrilla Girls themselves of Anglo-saxon dominance.

It goes to show what a thorny world it is when you try to do the right thing and that's probably a big part of the reason that people who do the wrong thing, or simply have no notion of right or wrong, are doing so well in so many spheres at the moment. Hopefully the pendulum will swing the other way. I take heed from the kind words that the Dunkers Kulturhus in Helsingorg, Sweden replied to the Guerrilla Girls with:- "We are disappointed with our failure (to be diverse) and are aware of the problem, and are taking steps to address it".

It's not weak to admit a mistake and try to correct it. In fact it's downright pig-headed not to. It seems to me, as a man who visits museums and galleries more than most, that things are becoming considerably more diverse. I've written about, and taken stick for writing about, the feminist avant-garde of the 70s, a recent all female art show at the Whitechapel itself, and Simon Fujiwara's recent project about rebuilding the public image of a woman who suffered a damaging tabloid scandal. I've covered female artists from Mary Heilmann and Etel Adnan to the more well known Georgia O'Keeffe and Maggi Hambling and I've written about artists from as far afield as Lebanon, India, and Mali. I've been able to do this not because I'm a wonderfully modern man (even though, of course, I am) but because curators (in London at least) are making bolder decisions. I believe they're making these bolder decisions because activists like the Guerrilla Girls have highlighted where they've gone wrong in the past.

Sometimes the Guerrilla Girls can seem a bit po-faced but they're not without a sense of humour. They've listed all the cultural institutions that failed to reply and put them on the floor so you can walk all over them. People were doing so when I was there.

There have also been accusations of selling out to the very art world they set out to critique. They've been accused of not moving with the times when it comes to new feminist theories. There have been internal ideological struggles within the group that have led to splinter groups and accusations. It's been messy but then trying to navigate the world (art, real, or both) using a moral compass often is. Though I may not agree with everything they say or do I'm glad they're out there doing it. Now more than ever.

Michael Andrews:A quest for unselfconsciousness.

"To be released and unselfconscious - how wonderful that would be" - Michael Andrews.

Michael Andrews (1928-1995) disdained publicity throughout his life. The Gagosian gallery's current Earth Air Water retrospective is the first substantial exhibition of his works in fifteen years. He was a contemporary of Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, and Leon Kossoff and while his name may not be as well known as those artists that's no reflection on his ability as a painter.

Born in Norwich he studied at the Slade in UCL before going on to teach at the Chelsea School of Art. Whereas Freud and Bacon distorted the human form and painted psychological portraits Andrews rarely depicted people. Human presence is often implied, suggested rather than depicted.

Someone's flying the plane in 1975's Cabin and someone's in that hot air balloon in the previous year's Lights VII:A Shadow. In the 50s Andrew had painted bohemian scenes from Soho drinking clubs but in the last two and a half decades of his life he preoccupied himself with four series of landscapes - Lights, Scotland, Ayers Rock/Australia, and English Landscapes. It seemed like he'd had enough of the self-indulgences and bad living of the capital and wanted to get some fresh air and a clear mind. He claimed, somewhat pompously, influence from Rimbaud, RD Laing, and Zen Buddhism and said the balloon, a recurring motif in his work, represented a symbol of the ego encased in a bag of skin in search of a landing place as a quest for unselfconsciousness.

Equally self-importantly he said, in 1986, "it seems to me impossible not to paint religious landscapes of aboriginal Australia". Not totally sure about that but the Australian portraits do particularly reflect that kind of dreamy logic. They border on pastiche but never quite cross that line. Andrews' style owes a lot to his use of watery acrylic paint and a spray gun to apply it. ".

There's a small selection of his portraits, including 1988's Self-Portrait (below), in the corridor before we're ushered into a large room containing some of his very best landscape painting. Laughter Uluru (Ayers Rock) - The Cathedral I (1985) and the two SAX A.D. paintings (1982 & 1983) show two very different sides to his style - and two very different terrains. The frontierland of Australia's outback looking comfortably alien and the green fields and weak blue skies of England looking almost disconcertingly familiar in contrast.

Some of his English rural idylls are almost hyperreal in their detail. Others, like the triptych Three Moments in a Stalk, Glenartney August 1982, are more idealised. The Thames at Low Tide (1993/4) borders on abstraction. I was asked by the invigilator not to take a photo of that one as it was in a private collection (which almost all of these are) but I'd taken it anyway so it's in the blog. I'm a maverick like that.

Alongside his hot air balloons, deer parks, ocean liners, and Brighton pier Andrews seemed to enjoy painting schools of fish. The School series (from the late 70s) includes some charming aquatic scenes as he further turned his gaze away from the cities and towards nature. It wasn't really the done thing at the time and this must've been part of the reason he remained in relative obscurity.

It seems to me that as a shy, taciturn man, though one prone to making rather grandiose statements about his oeuvre, he'd have been reasonably happy with that state of affairs. If he could work unhindered all the better for him and, as it turns out, all the better for us as we enjoy the fruits of the labour of this unshowy, yet highly talented, artist.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Park Seo-Bo:Dansaekhwa

"Art is no longer an act of fulfilment, but an act of emptying".

What is Dansaekhwa? It's hard enough to say let alone spell but it, or Tansaekhwa as it's also known, is a movement in Korean art that began in the 70s when artists from that country started to manipulate the materials of painting rather than just draw pictures. It fuses the Western abstract tradition, not least Lucio Fontana's ripped canvases, with more traditional Korean calligraphy.

It doesn't take very long to look at at all. That doesn't mean it has no worth though. The works are aesthetically pleasing in their inscrutability and, for those who value process as much as result, they're small things of beauty.

The septuagenarian Park Seo-Bo, along with Cho-Yong Ik, Chung Sang-Hwa, Lee Ufan, and Lee Dong Youb, is one of the key figures associated with this movement and, because of the patronage of the White Cube, is the one most accessible to British art pilgrims.

He's enjoying a series of shows at their Mason's Yard gallery and the current one, curated by Katharine Kostyal, goes under the none too memorable name of ZIGZAG:Ectriture 1983-1992. The fourteen works on show are all named Ecriture though they do have numbers to differentiate them. It seems about right that they haven't been given names as such as there's really so little to them.

Some of them look like badly artexed ceilings and others like the footplate of Lansing Bagnall FRER 5. Despite this they're rather charming. I look at lots of things everyday and sometimes it makes a nice change to look at (virtually) nothing for a while. Seo-Bo has been making these 'escritures' for half a century now which either shows a remarkable work ethic (something my friend Jason who lives in Korea tells me is highly likely) or an incredible dearth of imagination.

I'll give Park the benefit of the doubt and plunge for the latter. Less credible are his claims that his works are imbued with some kind of Taoist or Buddhist spiritual significance. Park studied brush painting at Hong-Ik University in Seoul during the Korean War but, after moving from Gyeongbuk to the Western region of his country, he became more interested in paper itself and its connection to almost every aspect of domestic life. Mulberry paper, to give one example, is often sealed with oil and used, in Korea, for flooring traditional houses.

His works in this series feature several layers of this mulberry paper, known in Korea as hanji, layered in strips and soaked with a water based paint mix using Japanese Go Fun natural pigment made from crushed sea shells, acrylic, and soot before being applied to the canvas when still wet. It sounds like a lot of hard work for such simple results but, again, it seems that Park's process is as important to him as any end result.

Which, could, of course lead to accusations of self-indulgence. I think the relative beauty of the end products counters this argument though. Park has said "I think colour, which is organic, can be used as a tool for healing" which is a rather pretentious, not to say preposterous, claim and, anyway, it's not like he uses much colour which suggests he doesn't actually want us to heal. Bad Park!

There is the occasional streak of red and, in the same way that a small change in a minimal composition can seem huge by virtue of the company it keeps, this has a tremendous effect. The artist Paul Klee died in Switzerland in 1940 at the start of World War II. He once said "the more horrifying the world becomes the more art becomes abstract". It's an understandable reaction if not much of a solution to anything. I guess as the world goes to shit we can at least have pretty things to look at.

Killer klowns from inner space.

Storm Doris did her best to ruin things but, in the end, only succeeded in delaying the start of the London Fortean Society talk Killer Clowns:Moral Panic and Urban Myth. It was probably apt that proceedings should get under way in such a shambolic, almost clownlike, manner but these descendants of Grimaldi are more funny peculiar than funny ha ha.

I've never been a huge fan of clowns. It's not that I find them scary or even sad. It's just that I've never found them funny or particularly interesting. In fact the recent spate of killer clown sightings is probably the most interesting thing that's ever happened in the world of painted faces, water spraying buttonholes, and cars with the doors falling off.

As LFS host and organiser Scott Wood was taking the talk itself it had more of an informal, chatty atmosphere than normal with guests, even my usually taciturn self, throwing comments in left, right, and centre. After a brief overview of the seemingly new phenomenon Scott looked at some possible forebears. They made for an interesting, curious, and slightly disturbing bunch. It seems that men dressing up in strange clothes so they could scare and threaten children isn't anything new at all. Jim'll fix it for you!

First up were the Mohocks. They were a gang of well-bred criminals in 18c society's upper echelons who, no doubt bored with the trappings of privilege, named themselves after the Mohawk native Americans and attempted, with a typically poor understanding of 'the other', to ape their savagery. They'd go out and get pissed then run around central London, Mayfair mostly, disfiguring their male victims and sexually assaulting women. They cut off people's noses and hands and rolled a woman down a hill in Clerkenwell in a beer barrel. They were like the Bullingdon Club, essentially, but with better dress sense than Boris Johnson.

Unlike Cameron and his cronies though the evidence for their crimes is scant. John Gay wrote a 1712 play about them that never saw the light of day and Daniel Defoe included them in Moll Flanders ten years later but most reports came from the burgeoning Grub Street press. Grub Street was an actual street roughly where the Barbican is now. It seems unclear if Grub Street gave us the adjective 'grubby' but it would be appropriate if it did. In a manner familiar to Rupert Murdoch's tabloids and the dreadful clickbait prose of Katie Hopkins, Piers Morgan, Jan Moir, and Camilla Long (to name four of the shittiest people in the country) it traded in lurid sensationalism. It didn't really matter if it was true or not. Chuck enough mud. Some of it'll stick.

This was what Scott's talk was really about. Scaremongering. How folkloric legends pass on. In the 19th century Spring Heeled Jack 'appeared'. Clad in a tight oilskin garment with clawed hands and fiery eyes he was seen making astounding leaps and breathing out fire. He was spotted first in London in 1837 and by 1904 he'd got to Liverpool. With an echo of the Mohocks so similar it suggests that it was just an updating of the story he was said to have ripped a woman's clothes off and sexually assaulted her on Clapham Common. Like many urban myths and legends it seems Spring Heeled Jack carried out some of his most dastardly deeds in South London. Lewisham, Croydon, and Bexley featuring strongly in the evening's talk.

By the 80s the press's favourite bogeymen were football hooligans. These were very real. I remember, as a teenager, witnessing a pitched battle with the police in comparatively civilized Reading so the shenanigans of the likes of Millwall and Chelsea would no doubt have been far more frightening. Chelsea weren't the elite European superstars of Stamford Bridge they are now. They were a mid-table team far more famous for their 'headhunters' than they were for the defensive prowess of Ken Monkou or the midfield skills of John Bumstead.

It was rumoured there was a branch of their hooligans called the Chelsea Smilers who'd hang around in a white van, it's always a white van, outside schools and when the kids were let out force either a credit card or a knife into their mouth until it cuts the sides open and rips their face into a 'smile'. A clownlike smile in fact. Think Heath Ledger's Joker. These rumours spread around London and eventually made their way to Scotland. Along the journey the team nominally supported by the perpetrators of these crimes was regionally modified to reflect local concerns. Some kids even got a day off school when their headteachers took these threats as real.

The same thing happened with the killer clowns. The first sighting was said to be in Carrickfergus. This particular clown hung around outside the police station with an even more disturbing balaclava (always a strong look in Northern Ireland) wearing sidekick. He stood there holding a regulation balloon and waving at passers by. Not particularly threatening but certainly uncanny.

That's the point with most of the so-called killer clowns. Soon one turned up in Northampton and, not longer after that, they were tooting their clown car horns all around both the UK and the USA. In America they'd often stand outside Wal-Mart. Here they'd be more inclined to loiter by the side of the road or in some bushes looking a bit menacing. Accessories were added for effect. Knives and even, in one case, a chainsaw. A few were seen to chase children but none to actually harm any.

American serial killer John Wayne Gacy may've dressed up as a clown for his day job, as well as painting pictures of them that aren't remotely disturbing, but when he was raping, torturing, and murdering more than 30 teenage boys in Chicago in the 70s he was wearing his civvies. During the killer clown phase the only reported actual acts of violence were carried out in France and Sweden (Trump's gonna have to ban clowns from entering the states now). It's as if, like football, the Europeans perfected something that the Brits had been doing badly for years. Well, Brexit means Brexit and we'll have no trouble here. From now on the only clowns in this country will be the ones running it.

I'm pretty sure Scott would be rolling his eyes at that lame joke and he'd be well within his rights to. He provided a thoughtful, amusing, slightly rambunctious talk on a subject that, like a lot of things going on in the world at the moment, doesn't really make a great deal of sense. Oh, what times we are living in.