18 March 2016 § Leave a comment
“The sensation of the passage of time always inspires me. Time changes everything, and when I can detect the pure movement of time, nothing else seems to matter. In these moments, there is very little else I would want to do.” Wang Guangle
Pace gallery is one of the world’s leading commercial art galleries. Their artists include modernist icons like Josef Albers and Robert Rauschenberg plus the likes of James Turrell (see our exhibition review here), John Hoyland (see review here) and David Hockney (see review here and ‘On the trail of…’ here).
Anyone remotely interested in the ebbs and flows of the contemporary art market would indeed therefore be very wise to keep a close eye on their latest activity. A recent example would be the February 2016 opening of their new gallery space in the cultural desert that is Palo Alto in silicon valley. The ‘out-there’ decision to add Menlo Park to their big city portfolio of London, New York, Beijing, Hong Kong and Paris caught many in the industry by surprise but it is certain that there will be many carefully monitoring its success – or otherwise.
Wang Guangle is a younger artist who was born 1971, trained at the Beijing Academy and graduating in 2000. His name will not be familiar to many outside China, indeed Yellow will be his first solo exhibition in Europe, but this is a name that we will probably hear more often. His style of abstraction is easy on the western eye with its superficial similarity to modernists like Albers and Rothko perhaps, although it is an abstraction that actually comes from a more distinct and recent Chinese angle.
Wang is best known for his memento mori style abstraction—inspired by the traditional burial practices of southern China, his tactile works are produced in a process of repetitive layering of different colors of acrylic, his works united by experiments in depth and space. One of the preeminent abstract painters of his generation in Beijing, Wang’s work is rooted in questions of painting’s temporality and the canvas as a vessel of labour and marker of time.
The exhibition includes a selection of recent paintings that evince the spirit and style of his work from the past decade, which in this case perhaps unsurprisingly includes an unprecedented use of yellow. Although he has no prescribed meaning for the colour, he apparently embraces its various associations, from timidity and carefulness to a more Chinese connotation of the erotic.
A series entitled Coffin paintings, shows thin strips of acrylic paint lining the canvas and wrapping around the frontal surface, leaving the drips along the sides. Multiple layers of paint added over periods of several weeks provide a characteristic striped effect and both illusionistic and real physicality. This layering process has its origins in his home region of Fujian, where elder men annually add a fresh layer of lacquer to their coffins in anticipation of their death.
The Untitled paintings mirror this process of scaling and accumulation in the Coffin works while placing a greater emphasis on geometry. Wang paints rectangular fields, each layer progressing farther from the edge and closer to the centre, creating a subtle gradation of colour and the effect of an illuminated rectangle or void. In these works, the question of abstraction arises; for Wang, abstraction is less a means of non-figuration and more of record that most abstract of phenomena: time.
Wang Guangle: Yellow is at Pace London until 16 April 2016
For more information visit www.pacegallery.com
12 March 2016 § Leave a comment
“I like it when one is not certain what one sees. When we do not know why the photographer has taken a picture and when we do not know why we are looking at it, all of a sudden we discover something that we start seeing. I like this confusion.” Saul Leiter
Everyone will be familiar with ’New Colour Photography’, as exemplified by William Eggleston and Stephen Shore: the commonplace photographed as intriguing with colours used for composition and often in an abstract fashion. It is also these photographer’s who are usually credited with being the forerunners of the style, however Saul Leiter was actually already using colour and Kodachrome slide film together with a freer artistic style by the 1940s and actually preceded Eggleston and Shore.
In his photographs, the genres of street life, portraiture, still life, fashion and architectural photography fuse together. Leiter came across his subjects, such as shop windows, passers-by, cars, signs and (a recurrent motif) umbrellas, in the direct vicinity of his apartment in New York, where he lived for almost 60 years.
The lack of clear detail, the blurring of movement and the reduction in depth of field, as well as the use of windows and shadows as natural filters, combine to create a photographic language of colour and abstraction set against the urban space. It is easy to forget though how groundbreaking the use of colour was in art photography. Colour was usually associated with advertising, but in the 1950s Leiter was showing that it could be an art form, and that the marriage of photography and colour could be a powerful medium.
Despite beginning in black and white – his early images were published in LIFE and exhibited in New York and Tokyo – Leiter quickly moved into fashion photography, shooting for Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Vogue, Esquire and more. It is surprising that, despite his prolific career, Leiter did not receive due recognition for his pioneering role in the emergence of colour photography until late in his life. He was often criticised for going against the documentary and art traditions of the day whilst in addition fashion photography always had a bad reputation for being somewhat artificial and superficial, museums and galleries not being inclined to take his work seriously.
A forgotten figure for most of the 20th century Leiter didn’t have a gallerist until 2008, his irreverence, modesty and lack of ego perhaps lent him a low profile with his first exhibition in Europe actually not arriving until 2008. The Photographers Gallery is attempting to put right this neglect with this exhibition. It features more than 100 works, including early black-and-white and colour photographs, sketchbooks and ephemera and is Leiter’s first major show in a public gallery in the UK.
Leiter always saw himself as both a painter and photographer, drawn to shapes, shadows, surfaces and textures in his paintings and pictures, and the exhibition includes a broad selection of his non-photographic artworks. These show the influences of his painting upon his photography but are not surprisingly perhaps the weakest part of the exhibition. Dull, derivative and amateurish, his paintings pale against the innovative and inventive style of his photography.
Much imitated Leiter’s is a style seen to be everywhere from adverts to Instagram. The sheer ubiquity of such images detracts a little from the initial impact of the exhibition – it is easy to feel that we’ve ‘seen it all before’ – but it is well worth visiting to celebrate the work of a true pioneer of the genre.
Saul Leiter: Retrospective is at The Photographers Gallery London until 3 April 2016
For more information visit www.thephotgraphersgallery.org.uk
26 February 2016 § Leave a comment
Despite the process of photography being somewhat scientific, Gathered Leaves – Photographs by Alex Soth, is on first appearances a slightly surprisingly choice as the latest exhibition at the Science Museum. Alex Soth is a contemporary photographer who takes an innovative aim at documentary photography whilst perhaps another (excellent) current exhibition of early images from photographic pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron also on now at the same venue is more in line with the sort of thing we are expecting at the museum.
What many may not know however is that the Science Museum Group (SMG) has just announced an historic agreement with the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). Over 400,000 objects from SMG’s three-million-strong photography collection will be transferred to join the V&A’s existing collection of 500,000 to create the single largest collection on the art of photography in the world in their International Photography Resource Centre.
The collection will comprise encompasses exquisite vintage prints, the world’s first negative, unique daguerreotypes and early colour photographs, as well as important albums, books, cameras and the archives of major photographers. There are also of course major holdings of the worlds top photographers from the dawn of photography right up to to the present day.
Alex Soth is one of those artists featured in the collection and this beautifully presented exhibition, surprisingly his first ever in the UK, is a fitting backdrop to the announcement. Surveying a decade of his work it features Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), Niagara (2006) and Broken Manual (2010) as well as the UK premiere of Songbook.
His work is characterised by a lyrical approach to documentary photography and a restless experimentation across the many forms that photography can take: from exhibitions and books, to zines and digital media. Soth, who lives and works in Minnesota, also shares the great American fascination with the open road, bringing a fresh perspective to ideas explored in the twentieth century by artists and writers such as Robert Frank, Stephen Shore and Jack Kerouac.
Throughout the exhibition we are in no doubt that we are looking at the work of an American photographer. We recognise the physical landscapes and wilderness of the USA, from iconic sights like the Niagara Falls through to wild forest. We also see the small rural towns whilst rural and run down suburbs also act as backdrops for his poetic surveys of American life.
For Sleeping by the Mississippi Soth set off with his large format camera to travel its 2000 mile course. He drifts lazily down its course taking in dreamers, visionaries and time worn motels. His camera transports us physically and metaphorically via the moving waters and the wandering imaginations and dreams of the regions residents.
Niagara has of course long been associated with both honeymoons and suicides. Soth refers to its ‘intensified sexuality and unsustainable desire’ and grabs snippets of poetry and evidence of passion, people in bars an wedding venues and juxtaposes them with the grandeur of the flowing falls.
Broken Manual explores the desire to run away from civilisation. Researching the web he discovered a world of communications and manifestos distributed by those who have chosen to withdraw from society: survivalists, monks and hermits.
We see some of the documents and Soths own zines displayed in glazed cabinets in the exhibition space. Soth also created his own survival instructions, the Broken Manual and then went on the road himself in seeking out here people.
He found his recluses in the vast unpopulated expanses of America – from deserts to forests – and photographed them in their solitude, drafted in their settings.
Finally, in Songbook, Soth elucidates modern American life in a timeless black and white. The project emerged from a series of road trips with the writer Brad Zellar. Posing as local newspaper reporters, over the course of two years they attended hundreds of meetings, dances, festivals, and communal gatherings, the resulting stories published as an ad hoc series of ‘dispatches’ from the different states visited.
Soth isolates his photographs from their original news context, and in doing so, evokes a human desire for interaction in an era increasingly defined by virtual social networks. Funny, fragmentary and sad, Songbook is a lyrical meditation on the tension between American individualism and the urge to be united.
Gathered Leaves – Photographs by Alex Soth is on until 28 March 2016
For more information visit www.sciencemuseum.org.uk
24 February 2016 § Leave a comment
I am usually rather sceptical about anything featuring numbered selections. Nowadays hardly anything seems to reach the pages of a magazine or a TV screen without being reduced to a seemingly arbitrary list. At best it can be of modest help where information has been distilled from something extensive or complex but at worst is simply a pointless exercise made with minimal critical judgement. The title of 100 Works Of Art That Will Define Our Age therefore aroused suspicion. How much selection was there? Was there really a nice round number? Could, or should, ’100’ just have been left off?
Numerical gripes aside this is an exceptional book. It is a formidable task to attempt to scroll forwards in time and make a judgement on how a future population will have judged art of the present day or indeed judge the art of your own era. It would also be easy to get bogged down in an almost endless series of semantic or philosophical questions but Grovier however delicately navigates this minefield with humour and skill.
He notes that Vincent Van Gogh’s contemporary view of his own ’Starry Night’ was that it was a dreadful ‘failure’ and by slipping in frequent insights such as this Grovier lets us glimpse at how the defining views of the art of the past and present are ever fluid.
We see how the artists of today continually draw from the past and how meanings flow in two directions. Great art never finishes but instead forever participates having the power to alter the art of the past as well as to influence the future.
Grover actually creates a definition of ‘Our Age’ by selecting art from about 1990 to 2010 leaving a certain amount of critical weight to have already been applied. The notorious Saatchi Sensation exhibition from 1997 already seems an age ago and a handful of works like Damien Hirst’s ‘Shark’ and Marc Quinn’s Self are naturally included. Many others like Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project for the Tate Turbine Hall, Jeff Koons’ Puppy, Marina Abramovic The Artist is Present and Tracey Emin’s ‘Bed’ seem natural choices, neatly included in sections with titles like ‘Is All Art Nostalgic’ and ‘Can Art and Life ever be in Sync?’.
At the same time one does wonder whether the likes of Jeff Wall, Cristina Iglesias, Walid Raad, Sean Scully and Sheela Gowda really define our age. I dont think so, and it is a stretch to think that as many as a hundred works can possibly define an age. If we look back another thirty years to Pop art how far do we see beyond a handful of names like say, Warhol and Lichtenstein? Who knows even if the period 1990 to 2010 will ever make its mark on history or fade in to a forgotten mist?
However, as one progressed through the book, the pleasure in looking back at some of the great works of our era and reading Grovier’s beautifully written and insightful analyses will dissolve all doubts. It reads easily and gently expands our appreciation of works that we perhaps doubted or misunderstood. It may, or may not, in the end include the works that define our age but perhaps it is best viewed simply as an exemplary record of memorable recent art.
For more information visit www.thamesandhudson.com
19 February 2016 § Leave a comment
Champagne Life is the title of a work by Julia Wachtel in this Saatchi Gallery exhibition of the same name. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West – better known as Kimye of course – feature repeated, inverted and brightly shaded, alongside pale blue Minnie Mouses (Mice?). Its a striking Warhol style work, from a Pictures Generation artist that critiques celebrity culture and one of several good Wachtel works that fill the first gallery.
This exhibition has selected fourteen disparate female artists to hang together. Unfortunately, other than the Wachtel piece giving the name to the exhibition, I’m not sure why it is entitled Champagne Life. Surely they cannot be suggesting that maybe girls tend to like bubbly drinks? The gallery tells us it is ironic but could it be rather more to do with the exhibition being sponsored by Pommery? In any case to hold a ‘girls only’ exhibition in the 21st century is surely unnecessary. The easy accusation is that Saatchi is guilty of tokenism when it should rather be concentrating on curating quality exhibitions.
The gallery is marking its 30th birthday with this show and still seems to have an unfortunate habit of shallow exhibitions based on rather on loose criteria. Recent major exhibitions have included for example Panagea I & II, which brought together a too-broad selection of both African and South America artists and Post Pop: East meets West, an incoherent overview of worldwide art linked only by a vague pop art aesthetic.
The works in the show are again decidedly mixed in quality. Sigrid Holmwood’s neon colours clash with the historical re-enactments depicted. They are striking and eye-catching but ultimately the sentiments are rather hollow.
Gallery three successfully brings together three middle-eastern artists making political tinged works. Saudi artist Maha Malluh presents a giant wall of battered and stained cooking pots, presented like a decorative arrangement of giant buttons. These discarded items speak of refugees broken lives and echo their sadness.
A stuffed mule atop a saggy green balloon by Iranian artist Soheila Sokhanvari was a work I saw part-finished at the RCA student show a few years back. I didn’t realise it had ended up in Saatchi’s hands, but it is a striking work that represents the deflation of hopes for Iran’s green movement.
In the same room Mia Feuer’s papier-mache Jerusalem Donkey, symbolises the plight of the Palestinians, restricted by the Israeli requirement to ride only mules over the border crossings.
Amongst more nondescript work a series of technically superb, giant sized works by Jelena Bulajić truly stand out. Minutely detailed but painted with a real delicacy and lightness of touch, her close-up portraits of elderly sitters convey real feeling.
Mequitta Abuja’s big, bright and fantastical scenes provide a welcome respite too. She weaves myth and legend in to canvases that are both autobiographical and trans-cultural and reminiscent of Chris Ofili’s work.
Filling gallery 10 are a giant bobbin and ball mummified in wound copper thread. Created by Alice Anderson, who we are told (unsurprisingly) entered a ‘meditative state’ during their creation, these demand attention but eventually leaves you to simply ask ‘why bother’?
The truly dreadful exhibition on the top floor where ‘Revelations’ by someone called simply Aidan (presumably to avoid the embarrassment of anyone finding out their real name) is presented by the ‘Tsukanov Family Foundation’. Does this reveal Saatchi’s formerly excellent artistic instinct being subverted by more mundane financial considerations?
I left feeling the same way I do at most Saatchi exhibitions, slightly unfulfilled. This exhibition is fine, but the wonderful space deserves just a little bit more. With an exhibition of Rolling Stones’ artefacts and ‘Graffiti Artist’ prints as the next two scheduled shows, I am not holding my breath quite yet.
For more information visit www.saatchigallery.com
13 January 2016 § Leave a comment
Art Visionaries is the latest publication from Laurence King Publishing, specialists in publications on the creative arts. This handsome and substantial softcover carefully lists seventy five of the ‘most influential figures in the history of art’ with an admirable clarity. Each artist is introduced on a double spread with a full page illustration of a key work and then a few hundred words that attempts to explain both their significance and artistic lives.
The copy is well written and one can only admire the self control and skill required to abstract the life of say, Picasso, in to such a brief and highly readable summary. The writers manage to include snippets of interest and plenty of snappy quotes, useful even for those who may feel that they already know these artists well. “Nobody can own this project, nobody can buy the project, nobody can possess the project or charge for tickets” stated Christo & Jean-Claude, whilst Kasimir Malevich observed “I have dragged myself out of the rubbish pool of academic art“.
A further double page spread illustrates more key works with a useful graphic artistic timeline. The extra illustrated pages allocated to each artist are nice but perhaps a double-edged sword. Whilst allowing images of more than one key work it still cuts short a deeper analysis. As an example Gerhard Richter, not unusual as an artist who went through a number of styles in his lifetime, does not get any of his abstract works featured.
Although it is not immediately clear from either the cover, this is a list of 20th century artists. There is also an almost total absence of artists from China, Africa, Asia and Oceania, along with Native and Folk artists and, although not stated anywhere, this volume therefore represents ’western art’ only. Fine, but really this should be clear in the cover notes or introduction.
To me there was a bias towards American artists and with the exception of Frida Kahlo, Nam Jun Paik, Yayoi Kusama, Mona Hatoum and Gabriel Orozco the remaining entries being Western European and Russian. The Brits do not do so well either – Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and Andy Goldsworthy are the only ones other than Hirst and Whiteread in who make it in.
There were some tough choices at either end of the century. Gaugin & Cezanne for example probably died too early in the 20th century to deserve entry but it is harder with those like Munch, who was a key influence for the Fauvists, exhibited with them and worked until his death in 1944 but perhaps harshly does not find himself included. At the end of the century had the artists working in the 1990’s yet done enough?
It is of course a thankless task to condense a roll call of thousands down to any sort of ‘popularity contest’ and everyone will find some of their favourites excluded and will disagree with some of those included. There are difficult choices, Italian Futurist Filippo Marinetti is featured but Vorticist Wyndham Lewis misses out. Unforgivably Max Ernst doesn’t feature and neither do Man Ray, Kurt Schwitters or John Baldessari – all true visionaries, whilst a number of mediocre but worthy artists are included. Personally I could have done without Rachel Whiteread, Mona Hatoum, Anish Kapoor, Jeff Wall and Sophie Calle. Richard Long is surely better than Andy Goldsworthy and aren’t other Arte Povera artists more deserving than Alighiero Boetti.
Interestingly, other than on the cover there is no mention of ’Visionaries’. This is quite a powerful word and implies rather more than a list of big name artists from a specific era. A typical relevant definition is ‘a person with the ability to imagine how a country, society, industry etc will develop in the future’. If that was the case with any of the included artists it was neither evident or elucidated by the text. Despite discovering the fact that the book is actually part of the publishers ‘Visionaries‘ series (Architects, Design, Photography etc that are strangely not mentioned anywhere in the book) the impression is left that the title does not represent any sort of driving force behind the selection process.
Even if Art Visionaries could have been something more – perhaps a more detailed analysis of those artists like Picasso, Duchamp and Beuys who could have been perhaps considered as most ‘visionary’ – this is nevertheless an excellent, highly enjoyable and nicely designed volume well worth a place on your bookshelf.
For more information visit Laurence King Publishing
9 January 2016 § Leave a comment
Our historic – and largely still current – curatorial approach to archaeological and artistic objects has been to divide and classify, to separate and categorise. This has its advantages, but those institutions like the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford where form is privileged over origin, and Tate Modern where there is a thematic approach, show that alternative strategies can be worthwhile.
By listing artworks without prejudice to civilisations, geographical location, art movements or other artificial categories it takes away the inherent divisiveness of categorisation to allow some remarkable comparisons and invites us to consider links where we had not seen them previously.
30,000 Years of Art does note a basic classification, e.g. Post-impressionism or Nasca Culture plus a geographical location, but these play second fiddle to a straightforward chronological listing. We therefore find that sharing double page spreads may be Arabic scripts and Chinese brush paintings, the Venus de Milo and a Mayan mural or a Mexican mask and an Ethiopian stele.
It is in this removal of all art historical classifications and hierarchies that to us is 30,000 Years of Art main achievement. By presenting a thousand masterworks in chronological order it shows what was being created all over the globe at approximately the same time.
The result is a remarkable insight into the interrelationships between seemingly unrelated cultures and civilisations as well as celebrating the diversity between those that may be considered similar. The resulting timeline of works leads to compelling browsing with the juxtapositions offering intellectual pleasure and a sense of wonder and discovery.
This is a book that can be a real coffee table book to be dipped in to and enjoyed at leisure, the entries simply and clearly written and easily understood. It can be usefully read chronologically or utilised as a vital reference book taking the reader on a global and historical journey, as a Chinese Shang urn stands next to a Mycenaean vase, and Michelangelo’s Slave is followed by a contemporaneous male sculpture from Nigeria.
As a research or reference book it would also be useful alongside more comprehensive texts with the arrangement responding to such questions as what were artists creating in China or Africa while Rembrandt was painting self-portraits in Leyden? How were similar subjects – the female form, landscapes, religious scenes – manipulated by artists in Han China or Medieval Europe?
Although the sequence is chronological, the selection of entries for an individual culture comprises an abbreviated history of the art of that people. Thus, while artworks from ancient Greece or the European Renaissance or pre-Columbian Americas are interspersed with contemporaneous works created in Africa, India or Japan, an extraction of the Greek or Renaissance or American works could stand alone as an essential summary of the finest art of that period or culture.
This is a volume that will deserve repeated use and surely is a compelling addition to any collection – or coffee table. Highly recommended.
For more information visit www.phaidon.com
- 30,0000 Years of Art
- 297 x 297 mm, 11 3/4 x 11 3/4 in
- 1064 pp
- 1,000 colour illustrations
- ISBN-13: 9780714847894