Friday, 14 July 2017

Lisa Yuskavage:Flesh for Fantasy.

I wonder how differently the art world, and myself, would have viewed the work of Lisa Yuskavage if she'd been born a man. In fact would the work be the same? Almost definitely not. Every little thing that happens in our life affects us, makes us see things in a different way, approach the world from a different angle. The gender you're born in to or, indeed, identify with is simply too large a thing not to affect your world view.

The proportions of most of Yuskavage's nudes or nearly nudes (very few are fully clothed that's for sure) are pretty unrealistic. They're Barbie or Sindy dolls grown up, gone bad, or, if you'd prefer, gone good. David Zwiner on Grafton Street in Mayfair has got a small show, spread over two floors, showing us what Yuskavage has been working on over the last couple of years.

The landscapes these overly eroticised women are painted in front of are equally fantastical and unrealistic. Consisting of bold colours, ludicrously expensive looking furniture, or simply gauzy clouds it's hard, initially, to make much of a connection between Yuskavage's soft porn soft focus imagery and Alice Neel's psychological portraiture but that doesn't mean people haven't tried.

It's not just that they're both Pennsylvania born artists who relocated to New York City, or even that you can buy a book about Alice Neel in the bookshop at David Zwirner, but more that they both use heightened colour and exaggerated features to add emphasis to their work. Yuskavage, as will be immediately clear, just goes a lot further than Neel.

Stoned (2016)

(Nude) Hippie (2016)

Hippie (Nude Bra) (2016)
Often these women pose solo both delighting and, to a lesser extent, subverting the male gaze. Are we men so crap that even a fairly unrealistic representation of a naked lady will do it for us? I'm afraid the answer is yes. The pictures of loving couples are, on the surface, less problematic. There's tenderness for sure - but also tension. Who's in control of the situation?
In 2016's Lovers a young lady appears to be performing what can only be described as a titwank for her slightly obscured partner. Framed by an almost Matisse like red the man's head may be unclear but the woman is facing away from us. You could spend ages looking at some of these paintings and trying to conjure a narrative. Or you could just giggle at all the bums and boobs. I did a bit of both.

Lovers (2016)

Housewarming (2016)

Suburbs (2017)

Deja Vu (2017)
One woman and about five shadowy men make up this year's Deja Vu. What's afoot here? A gangbang? Something worse? Why are the men greyed out and why do they all look the same? I don't think they actually represent real men, more ideas of men, memories of men but my interpretation was not as interesting as the one I overheard a fellow gallery visitor share with his friend. He opined that all the men looked like James Morrison. I wasn't sure if he was being over formal in describing the late Doors frontman and serial penis exposer or if he meant the very much alive pop-soul singer from Warwickshire. 

Super Natural (2017)

Ludlow Street (2017)
The most lovingly portrayed couples are the ones in Ludlow Street and Wine and Cheese. It's kind of cute that he's kept his green socks on and who wouldn't enjoy a nice glass of red wine when having their genitals caressed. Two of life's great pleasures at the same time.
There's no doubt that part of Yuskavage's schtick is to take a sideways, and playful, look at the way the nude has been portrayed across art history. A quick walk round any major gallery will confirm to you that naked women have been painted, and exhibited, many more times than naked men.. So it's hard to say exactly why Yuskavage has chosen to add to that history, even amplifying certain female, er, assets as she does. There's no denying that the colours, the compositions, and, yes, all that oil, graphite, and charcoal on linen portraying exposed (mostly female) flesh are a pleasure to look at but I can't help thinking she's aiming for something more than grubby ogling.
She's an amazing artist with an instantly recognisable technique, it's a joy to look at her work (even the rest of her oeuvre, sadly not presented here, which contains so much more than the nudes) but I wasn't quite able to process, or understand, what kind of contradictory psychological stunt she's playing. I guess the only thing I can do is try and get along to see more in the future. It'd be rude not to.

Wine and Cheese (2017)

Hynek Martinec:A beautiful dissonance.

You might say the 'figure' in Hynek Martinec's Chocolate Labyrinth and Tea is no oil painting but that's exactly what he/she/they is. In fact the skill, and attention to detail, in Martinec's smooth, technically excellent, and slyly surreal work is often quite astonishing

I visited his Birth of Tragedies show at the Parafin (a neat little gallery just down from Bond Street tube that recently hosted a delightful little show by Justin Mortimer) not 100% sure quite what to expect after taking in a press release that alluded to 'different registers of reality' and 'an unsettling currency'.

I needn't have worried. I may not have fully understood why Martinec had chosen to name one of his works Brexit, nor why he'd chosen as his subject matter, in The Boat on the Moon, a floating baby scan, but I couldn't fail to be ever so slightly mesmerised by the way he'd worked his oil paints up into such a beautiful dissonance.

Chocolate Labyrinth and Tea (2016)

Brexit (2016)
He'd named the show The Birth of Tragedies in tribute to an 1872 text by Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, in which the 19c German philosopher argued for an immersive form of art that emphasised the passionate Dionysian over the rational Apollonian. I've never really seen passion and rationality as opposites and, in fact, would make the case that some of the most passionate acts ever have been based on, what at least would've seemed to be the case at the time, rational and logical reasoning.
Never mind, Nietzsche wasn't right about everything but he certainly made some interesting points so it's no surprise that he's inspired an artist born eight full decades after his death. Martinec was born in 1980 in the small Czech town of Broumov near the border with Poland so he is, both by birth and inclination, a bohemian.
For someone with a keen sense of art history there's a fun game of spot the reference to be had with his works. I'll freely admit that I couldn't find the promised nod to Zurbaran  and had to be told that the satyr with the VR headset in Circus of Nightmares was a tip of the cap to Van Dyck.
Songs from the Last Century reminded me of the Gerhard Richter artwork that Sonic Youth appropriated for Daydream Nation twisted through the surreal genius of Salvador Dali and Peter Paul Rubens seemed to be the obvious progenitor of last year's The Shepherd Paris but why?
I think what Martinec is trying to do is get us, in these uncertain times (check the pluralisation of Tragedy in his show title), to question the very nature of history (art or otherwise) and the fluidity of truth. In the world of fake news, alternative facts, and barefaced bullshitting you're on shaky ground if you start saying there is more than one version of the truth but Martinec's argument is more nuanced than that. What he's saying with these works is that there's more than one way of seeing something - and that that can change over time depending on the viewer, where they are in their life at that moment, and what surrounds them.

Circus of Nightmares (2017)

Songs From The Last Century (2016)

The Boat on The Moon (2017)

Flogging Baroque Horse (2017)

The Shepherd Paris (2016)

Cross the Line (2016)
The well lit ground floor room contains most of Martinec's larger paintings but you can descend a small staircase into a darker basement room where can you witness an even more playful, cheeky, aspect of Martinec's work.
These drawings appropriate imagery from Old Masters and vintage photography and combine them with the signatures of internationally famous artists like Duchamp, Giacometti, Degas, Picasso, Klee, Beuys, and Schiele. The works and signatures don't match up ('Oscar Wilde' has signed one of them!) which, as well as cocking a snook, Duchamp style, at the art world, underlines Martinec's point about how our views of (art) history change over time.

Marcel Duchamp (2015)

Alberto Giacometti (2015)

Edgar Degas 1899 (2016)

Pablo Picasso (2015)
Martinec talks a good game, and he no doubt has serious things to say about how we see, what we see, and why we choose to see in such a way, and he's a great painter too. You can come and ponder matters of Nietzschean metaphysical voluntarism and the hegemonic nature of art historical narratives or you could just pop in and enjoy his rather beautiful, slightly disarming but aesthetically very pleasing, paintings. I like to think I did a bit of both.

Study of Baroque (2017)

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Alice Neel:Uptown Top Ranking.

"What fascinated her was the breadth of humanity that she encountered" Hilton Als on Alice Neel.

In 1938 Pennsylvania born Alice Neel, then 38 years old, moved from the relative comfort of Greenwich Village to the edgier district of Spanish Harlem in pursuit of 'the truth'. I can't imagine why any one area is more truthful, or indeed more false, than any other but the work she made there was, if not 'true', certainly eye-catching, beautiful, and often thought-provoking.

She and her lover, Puerto Rican musician Jose Negron, lived in an apartment on East 107th Street. As well as the decade she'd previously spent in NYC she'd also lived in pre-revolutionary Havana with her then husband, the Cuban Carlos Enriquez. This, seemingly, had given her a taste for the 'other' and a dissatisfaction of, an aversion to even, white middle class society. Neel had had a very eventful, and upsetting, life up until this point. She'd lost one daughter, Santillana, to diphtheria when she was just eleven months old and a second daughter, Isabetta, had been taken back to Cuba with Enriquez who'd told her he was going to Paris to look for a house from them to live in as a family. These hugely distressing events led to a nervous breakdown and a suicide attempt but, even during such traumatic times (perhaps because of them), Neel kept painting. The now thirty year old woman who'd been told, as a child, by her mother "I don't know what you expect to do in the world, you're only a girl" was nothing if not determined to express herself.

It would be easy, and incorrect I feel, to criticize Neel, a white woman, for exoticising the Latin Americans and blacks of Harlem. It was admirable that she sought to portray a society that had, for the most part been overlooked by her contemporaries, or, often, depicted with patronising sentimentality. Though Neel was interested in politics she remembered, and it shows in her work, that people were, first and foremost, individuals. Endlessly fascinating individuals. Each, like her, with their own passions, fears, neuroses, and histories. Like the younger Diane Arbus she returned, time and time again, to the same subject, the same sitter, as if in an attempt to unravel what she knew to be the unsolvable mysteries of life.

Girl with Pink Flower (1940s)

Building in Harlem (1945)
The Victoria Miro Gallery on Wharf Road, under the curatorial eye of New Yorker and former Village Voice writer Hilton Als, have put together a small, but impressive, collection of her paintings, either acrylic on board or oil on canvas, and it was a pleasure to spend an hour or so in their company. All, except the shadowy, blood-red, Building in Harlem, are portraits and, though they span the best part of forty years, they're all rendered in a style that instantly marks them out as the work of Alice Neel.
That's not to say they're samey. They're not. Girl with Pink Flower's simplicity stands in stark contrast to the more regal portrait of Alice Childress and the pensive, or maybe he's just been to the dentist, pose of Harold Cruse.
Life in 'El Barrio' offered Neel many things. Inspiration, emotional sustenance, an affordable place to live, and, most importantly, another two children. Richard and Hartley Neel were born in 1939 and 1941 respectively. During the time they lived in Spanish Harlem she saw the neighbourhood go from a predominantly Italian enclave to a mostly Latin, particularly Puerto Rican, area. Along the way the Scandinavians, Irish, Jews, and Germans had come and gone in great numbers.

Alice Childress (1950)

Harold Cruse (c1950)
She was not, at this time, a successful artist and was receiving no critical or financial support for her work other than that bestowed upon her by the kindness of friends. Clearly, her twin passions, for humanity and painting, drove her on.
Some of those she painted were friends, some not. Many were notable academics, actors, and authors. Alice Childress (1916-1994) moved to Harlem, from South Carolina, with her grandmother in 1925 and joined the American Negro Theatre. In 1944 she was nominated for a Tony as Best Supporting Actress in a Broadway production of Anna Lucasta but after that she struggled to find worthwhile roles in the theatre that represented the black women she knew. So she began writing herself. She also got involved in social issues and helped unionise actors.
Thoughtful Harold Cruse would go on to become a key figure in the civil rights and black nationalist movements and is best known for his 1967 book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. He became a member of the Communist affiliated CNA (Committee for the Negro in the Arts), taught at the Black Arts Repertory Theatre in Harlem, and travelled to Cuba in the early 60s, after the revolution.
Horace Cayton is most well known as co-author (with St.Clair Drake) of Black Metropolis:A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, a history of Chicago's South Side from the 1840s to the 1930s. 
Neel doesn't raise these people above the status of Julie (and her doll) or Anselmo, a neighbour who helped her out with jobs around the house and building bookshelves. She accords each sitter their own individuality. Snowflake has become an insult bandied about by right-wingers towards liberals these day but each snowflake, famously, is unique - as is each person. Neel let personality, rather than status, dictate her portraiture. She doesn't seem like the kind of person who'd take the word snowflake as an insult. Her work is all the better for it.

Julie and the Doll (1943)

Anselmo (1962)

Horace Cayton (1949)
In September 1962 Neel was relocated by her landlord from Spanish Harlem to a larger apartment in Manhattan's Upper West Side. The new place allowed for more generous helpings of light and you can see in the later portraits how that's poured into her work. The Upper West Side was just as diverse as Spanish Harlem had been. Jewish and Ukrainian families had long made up the majority of the populace but, by the 50s and 60s, the influx of Cubans and African Americans had further diversified the area.
Three years earlier Neel had appeared in Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie's 1959 avant-garde film Pull My Daisy and this increased her visibility as an artist. She'd made a portrait of the artist Robert Smithson while still living in El Barrio but her 1970 likeness of Andy Warhol, all pallid skin, moobs, and scars, certainly got more people to take notice of her.
Celebrity portraits weren't, for the most part, her thing though. Pregnant Maria was a friend of Neel's. Stephen Shepard (yes) was an art student, Ed Sun went to medical school with her son Hartley, Neel met Kinuthia when, in 1973, she travelled to Africa. He was a local radio host and had arranged an exhibition of her work in Nairobi.
The 'Woman' in the 1966 portrait is Ujjaini Khanderia, daughter of the Indian social-realist novelist Bhabani Bhattacharya, who was, at the time studying at the University of Michigan and suffering enormous homesickness for India. Ron Kajiwara (seemingly sat atop a chair on loan from Van Gogh) and his family had been detained in a California internment camp during World War II but later became a design director for Vogue before, in 1990, dying of AIDS, and sweet and innocent Benjamin was simply the son of the superintendent of Neel's apartment building south of Morningside Heights where she lived until her death in 1982.
Again, no portrait stood on ceremony alone. Each sitter was treated with respect and rendered lovingly. They may be what we'd call these days psychological portraits but, unlike some works that get labelled that, it's hard to imagine the sitters being anything less than thrilled by the finished result. All of the works are both beautiful and dignified. They present themselves to you, unflinchingly, in an instant yet you could look at them time and again and still not quite know what's fully going on. In that the portraits that Alice Neel made are very much like people themselves. Complicated, mysterious, alluring, and always the focus of one's eye.

Pregnant Maria (1964)

Stephen Shepard (1978)

Ed Sun (1971)

Kinuthia (1973)

Woman (1966)

Ron Kajiwara (1971)

Benjamin (1976)

As a coda to the exhibition there's a couple of Perspex covered tables where you can peer at literature relevant to the work and the times. Works by Harold Cruse, Alice Childress (her young adult fiction A Hero Ain't Nothin' But A Sandwich whose title later found itself co-opted by both The Goats and House of Pain), Horace R Cayton, Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin sit next to the less obvious tomes of W E B Dubois and Jean-Paul Sartre. There's a Lenin biography and a letter from Neel asking Fidel Castro if she could paint him.

Neel's politics were no doubt very important to her but it seems, from looking at this small retrospective, that, for her, the political always stemmed from the personal. The love of humanity really shines through in this lovely, and free, exhibition.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Construction time again #2:Francis Kere and the Serpentine Pavilion.

It's become something of an annual secular pilgrimage of mine to head down to Kensington Gardens each summer and check out the Serpentine Pavilion. Last year's edifice came courtesy of the Bjarke Ingels Group and this year the baton has been handed over to Burkinabe architect Diebedo Francis Kere. My knowledge of the architecture of Burkina Faso is limited to one visit to the Calvert 22 Foundation in Shoreditch where I saw an Isaac Julien photograph of Place des Cineastes in Ouagadougou. That impressed me so I had high hopes of Kere's pavilion.

I love the blue colour that Kere has used in his construction - and the triangular motif was aesthetically pleasing too. Kere's firm may be based in Berlin but his influence comes from the small village of Gando in Burkina Faso's Department of Tenkodogo where he was born in 1965 and became the first child in that village to go to school. It's inspired by the tree that serves as a central meeting point for the people of the village.

It both connects to and, with its canopy, keeps out nature. Unfortunately it was unable to keep out the sound of Starsailor supporting Phil Collins over in Hyde Park. You could hear James Walsh bleating like Larry the Lamb when the wind blew in the right/wrong direction.

It also didn't serve as much of a meeting place when it had to be evacuated due to a bomb scare. A careless visitor had left his bag there and had to sheepishly return to retrieve it before we were all allowed back in. I wasn't tempted to stick around for banana bread, a seasonal fruit pot, a bottle of Gingeralla, or even a glass of Pinot Grigio in the cafĂ© but I did linger longer to admire the building for a bit and to learn a little about Kere's background and career.

According to the UN Human Development Index in 2011 Burkina Faso is the 7th least developed country in the world. Low income, low life expectancy, and lack of education has hindered progress in the country and the fact that there is virtually no rain for about eight months of the year, when the temperatures regularly reach 45c, hasn't helped either.

Kere started his career by building a primary school out of mud bricks in Gando. Most Burkinabe schools are built from concrete and are, therefore, often intolerably hot and not particularly conducive to learning. The fear with mud bricks was that they'd not survive the rainy season but Kere's innovative widened tin roof solved this problem.

From there he went on to build an extension to the school, a school library, and housing for the teachers. More schools and an atelier followed as well as a project to plant more mango trees to help with malnutrition in an area where most people only eat one meal a day.

People further afield started to take notice of Kere's work and he received commissions from neighbouring Mali and then as far away as both Switzerland and China. He even ended up having a tenure as a professor at Harvard. He'd come a long way from Gando but he'd clearly kept Gando in his heart along the journey.

So he was probably long overdue an appearance in the UK and I'm pleased to say that in terms of functionality and playfulness the pavilion was certainly doing its job. Kids and big kids alike were enjoying sliding down its smooth wooden surfaces and its proposed use as a meeting place was, after the bomb scare, working wonders. People knocking off early on a Friday afternoon were putting their feet up and letting the stresses and pressures of the working week slowly rinse off.
We've been having a wonderful, and proper, summer so I was unable to witness the oculus Kere had provided to funnel off rain water and convert it into an apparently spectacular waterfall. I'd like to see that - but then again I'd like it to continue being sunny for a bit longer yet.
The Pavilion is also being put to use to host a series of community picnics. This, and the ongoing series of Park Nights that seeks to present a 'series of experimental and interdisciplinary encounters' in art, music, film, philosophy, and technology, all seem to hew true to the ethos Kere had in mind when designing the building. He did, after all, say in his mission statement that he hoped that "the Pavilion will become a beacon of light, a symbol of storytelling and togetherness." I think he's gone and done it. Bravo

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Stoned out of my mind:A trip to Avebury.

Only two days after the first two day TADS walk I found myself back on The Ridgeway. A different stretch and only for a few minutes but The Ridgeway nonetheless.

Kathy was having a week off work and had suggested a trip down to Avebury in Wiltshire. As a fan of history, big stones, country pubs, and days out I of course accepted. I took the tube over to Gunnersbury before Kathy picked me up in her silver Seat and we sped off down the M4 to Junction 14 before passing through the picturesque market towns of Hungerford and Marlborough on the way to Avebury.

You see your first stones before you enter the village proper. It's a very small village with a population of just over 500 but these stones bring in huge numbers of visitors and so The Red Lion, the village's only pub and, so it boasts, the only pub in the world inside a stone circle, was doing a roaring trade. History enthusiasts were supping ales before noon. I wasn't going to join them but when Kathy said we might not get back until fairly late in the evening I realised I wouldn't be going for a run that evening so decided to try a pint of the local ale, Avebury Well Water.

I was glad I did. It was lovely. My nachos and wild elderflower bubbly were good too. We'd hoped to have 'luxury' mac'n'cheese but Kathy had asked if they used rennet in its preparation and they said they did. As strict veggies we had to change our plans.

Fed and watered Kathy downloaded a map on her phone and we set about trying to get our bearings. Seemingly not an easy task. We chatted to a friendly National Trust volunteer who seemed nearly as clueless as us but eventually, between us, we worked out what direction we needed to be heading in.
It was only a six mile walk but it was a very picturesque one. Gentle, rolling hills rather than anything too taxing. We walked along the West Kennet Avenue. The cows ignored us as we admired the huge stones, some smoothish, some nobbly, all really quite spectactular. Where original stones are missing they've been replaced by some kind of, much smaller, placeholder stones. I wasn't totally sure if I approved but they did give us an idea of what Avebury must've once looked like.

It was getting pretty warm, butterflies were fluttering by, and only a couple of miles from the village there we hardly any other walkers to be seen. We asked a local farmer (a sexy farmer according to Kathy) what the yellow leguminous looking crops growing were. He said it was rapeseed which I believe is non-leguminous so I was bit confused. I asked if later in the summer it would take on its very bright yellow colour and he said it was too late, that'd already happened.

Under a clump of trees we saw an ancient burial ground, before we strolled briefly along aforesaid Ridgeway, and descended into the village of Avebury again. A farm, perhaps owned by the sexy farmer, seemed to be making the milk for Cadbury's chocolate!
The next field had sheep in it (which we were warned not to 'worry') - and, of course, more megaliths. There's been a huge amount of study into why the stones were there, what purpose they had, and what purpose to some they still have (there seemed to be a druid on one of the stones though others were being used as benches to relax and read books) but there's plenty of other, better, places to read about that (I'm sure my friend Jack, responsible for the Daily Megalith on Twitter, could point you in the right direction). We were very much casual visitors.
I'd love to go back, I'd not been since the late eighties and Kathy, perhaps due to being from Sunderland, had never been, and if I do I'll hopefully learn, and write, more about the experience. We wandered the outer ditch, apparently excavated by hand, and the outer circle, and marvelled at the stones known as the cove that make up one of the set pieces of the inner circle.
With more time we'd have taken in the Alexander Keiller Museum, near the Anglican church, which tells the story of the stones and the Scottish archaeologist who worked on excavations there until World War II so rudely interrupted his studies.
Instead we sat in the glorious sunshine, I had a Marshfield Farm mint choc chip ice cream, we jumped in the car, headed the same way back, and I arrived back in London pondering a wonderful day out and looking forward to the next one.