2 November 2017 § Leave a comment
Do not come to the latest Barbican Gallery exhibition Basquiat: Boom for Real expecting a straightforward show of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work. This is rather more than that and all the better for it. This is an exhibition where, in the words of Jane Alison, the Barbican’s Head of Visual Arts, we can “see those works in the context of the New York scene of the 1980s.” We therefore get videos, photographs, music, film, books and paintings, where Basquiat is presented as a multidimensional artist weaving between media.
New York at that time was certainly a rich melting pot. A dangerous and violent city on the edge of bankruptcy, it housed a thriving cultural scene. Basquiat, young and black has often been pigeon-holed as a a poor outsider, who developed from homeless graffiti artist to gallery favourite. The truth is rather different.
From a relatively wealthy family, Basquiat went to a private school, was well educated and a talented artist and was admiring Renaissance masters in New York galleries in his teens. Having dropped out of college, he briefly ran away from home, stayed with friends and scrawled graffiti as ‘Samo’ (a play on ‘same old shit’), although its style was not ‘from the streets’ but always from an artist insider critiquing the contemporary art scene.
The Barbican Gallery divides the show in to some fourteen sections. From Samo graffiti we then see the beginning of his stratospheric rise in a recreation of the New York/New Wave exhibition. A landmark show where despite including the likes of Andy Warhol, Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplethorpe, the young Basquiat was singled out for admiration.
Between examples of his work we get to learn plenty about the post-punk underground art scene: The Canal Zone, a graffiti covered downtown loft/art space brought him together with collaborators for collage and postcards; the Mudd Club was where he hung out and performed with his band; at Area he hung out with Keith Haring or Madonna whilst dj-ing sets on a Brian Eno created sound system.
A key element of the exhibition is a remarkable film, Downtown 81, a chronicle of a day in the in the life of a down and out artist, for which Basquiat was chosen to play the leading role. It is essentially a prescient version of his real life as we see him spraying Samo-tagged graffiti and hawking his art (some of it in the show) around galleries as he visits clubs, watches bands and interacts with the larger than life local characters.
If so far we haven’t mentioned his art much, it is with good reason – there is not a lot here. We do see his graffiti, collages, postcards, sketches, polaroids and even his graffiti covered fridge. We also see books, records and photographs as the Barbican outlines his jazz, art and classical influences.
Where we do see his larger works – vibrant, raw imagery, abounding with fragments of bold capitalised text – they offer insights into both his encyclopaedic interests and his experience as a young black artist with no formal training. New scholarship sheds light on some of his most acclaimed works – sampling from an extraordinary breadth of source material – anatomical drawings to bebop jazz to silent film.
“Untitled” (1981), for example, includes variations of the name Aaron. While Basquiat’s father understood it to be a reference to baseball player Hank Aaron, the Barbican Gallery posits other allusions: a character in Shakespeare’s play “Titus Andronicus,” and the brother of Moses in the Old Testament. Two letters also feature individually, “A” and “O,” and relate to a passage from Revelation that fascinated Basquiat: “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.”
The label for his 1982 painting Jawbone of an Ass, he lists historical figures including Hannibal, Machiavelli, Savonarola, Sappho and Rameses II, is a vision of world history as a ceaseless round of wars. Cartoon monsters with savage teeth express the violence of the painting’s Biblical title. In the bottom right, a black boxer hits a white opponent.
He worked surrounded by imagery: open books, pages from magazines and photographs laying around him as the TV flickered and jazz music played. He worked rapidly absorbing influences from anything and everything. Sometimes the resulting art is hard to like, at others remarkably fresh, powerful and multi-layered.
Strangely there is nothing here about his heroin addiction and untimely death at just 27, and we do not know if there were lost chances to save him from self-destruction. We are ultimately left to ponder what sort of art this talented and elemental force would have continued to produce if it were not for his tragic end.
All images © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Licensed by Artestar, New York
10 October 2017 § Leave a comment
October is the very best time of year to see art in the capital. The city is abuzz with the latest blockbuster shows – 2017 brings Jasper Johns as well as Dali/Duchamp to the Royal Academy, Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Barbican and Rachel Whiteread is showing at the Tate. The commercial galleries have pulled out their biggest names – there are Jean Dubuffet at Pace, Jake & Dinos Chapman at Blain Southern and Anselm Kiefer & Robert Longo at Thaddeus Ropac. Meanwhile all the big names auction houses stage their autumn contemporary sales.
Frieze of course also comes to London, not only with the contemporary focused Frieze Art Fair, but the thriving Frieze Masters event just up the Regents Park footpath. The great and the good of the art world come together with a smattering of celebrity names to see the latest that the art world has to offer.
Our annual visit to Frieze is always highly anticipated. Not only to admire some great art but to also to discern new trends, see what the big names have on offer admire the most spectacular works – after all this is the biggest fair in the greatest city in the contemporary art world.
Yet still, and perhaps because of the anticipation, there is again a tinge of anti-climax. Are we expecting too much or could Frieze do better? Their gallery selection process doesn’t help – preferencing worldwide galleries means we seem to get mediocre work from perhaps Peru or Burkino Fasso at the expense of many excellent local galleries (is this not a London art fair after all?).
Gone are the bigger artists names and the spectacular and expensive works that graced earlier shows and we now seem to get more mid level and affordable (?) pieces – even from the big name galleries. One is left with the niggling impression that much of the best work is hidden away and that most of the deals are done back at their base.
The curated ‘Sex Work’ exhibition spread through the show failed to stir us and was rather tame. Still, this is the very best contemporary art fair in Britain, there is plenty of good art to be found and new names to be discovered. There is always something to surprise, people to meet and in the end, where else could you for example pick up a free Passport to Antartica?
Amongst our selection of what we noticed at this years fair were: Olafur Eliasson whose colour-shifting balls drew a large crowd whilst Eddie Peake was eye-catching as usual. We loved Ryan Mosley’s newest works, rather more colourful than usual and Mathew Ronay’s curious pastel-coloured and tactile sculptures. On the other hand Jeff Koon’s Glitterball Jesus and Hauser & Wirth’s Bronze Age pseudo museum display failed to inspire.
So, will we go back next year? Of course we will – and we’re looking forward to it already!
akickupthearts were guests of Frieze London
For more information visit www.frieze.com
The Polaroid Project: At the Intersection of Art and Technology ed. William Ewing and Barbara Hitchcock
4 July 2017 § Leave a comment
This post is also featured at www.cellophaneland.com
Remember that time, not so very long ago, when we all rushed down to the local Boots to drop in our films for printing? From this frustration of impatiently waiting anything from an hour (for those willing to stump up extra) to a week, to see the results of all the careful holiday snapping, lays the foundation of the Polaroid.
Back in 1943 Edwin Land, having been asked by his young daughter why she couldn’t see her photo right away, immediately set to work. Within an hour he had conceived the technology and the story of instant photography had begun.
When the long and painstaking development process (no pun intended), documented in the book by prototypes, models and test images, had been completed, the result was not only scientifically groundbreaking but also heralded a new chapter of artistic expression. The New York Times proclaimed “There is nothing like this in the history of photography…”
Nowadays Instagram is the leading representative of the world of instant imagery. It should therefore not be surprising to know that prominent in the lobby of their California HQ sits a collection of Polaroid cameras, the most noteworthy being the 1977 OneStep featuring the rainbow logo appropriated by Instagram in its own design.
Land had in the seventies already predicted escalating use of cameras saying that they would soon be used ‘All day long…. like a telephone’, whilst probably not anticipating they would often be one and the same apparatus.
In this lay the recognition that the world, and people, had irrevocably changed; the barrier of subject and photographer had started to disappear in line with Barthes ‘Death of the Author’ and there was a continuous recording of lifes events and expansion of the ‘sharing’ experience. The almost instant sharing of Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat seem to be a natural development of what began with the Polaroid.
For the more artistic the new product was impressive but came with many built in limitations. Images were usually of limited size (save by using larger studio-bound cameras), fixed formats, limited camera adjustments. Laboratory colour and exposure manipulation were impossible.
Despite, or perhaps because of, these very particular restrictions it invited users to become ever more inventive. Artists like Lucas Samaras and Bruce Charlesworth manipulated or separated the emulsion or used repeated exposures. David Hockey used multiple images overlaid or arranged in grids to increase dimensions. Other painted, drew or scratched on and around the developed image.
Andy Warhol took all his portraits with a Polaroid and incessantly snapped his way around New York, Others like Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, Robert Rauschenberg and Chuck Close often used it, whilst film makers, commercial, advertising and fashion photographers found the instant images essential for planning their shots.
It’s colour initially put off many art photographers, black and white being up to then the choice for ‘serious’ practitioners. This however was the era of ever more portable 35mm cameras and also of photographers like William Eggleston and Stephen Shore and Polaroid were in a perfect position to tap in to the wider acceptance of their casual colour snap-shot aesthetics.
The Polaroid Project leads us through this story via a series of essays that look for example at Polaroid’s foundation and history, the development of the technology, artistic developments and its relation to social networks and the selfie. They are interspersed with an impressive array of widely varied imagery with plenty of ‘how on earth did they do that?’ moments.
The book is subtitled ‘At the intersection of Art and Technology’ and it is published to accompany a major touring exhibition, so it is not surprising to see that text and illustrations are geared towards the artistic. Perhaps a future show and accompanying volume can show what the public, as well as industry and business, created with the technology – but that’s yet another story.
There is a frequent lament here to the death of Polaroid, tied to the winding up of the company and closure of the factories, but, as with vinyl, this seems hugely premature. Instant film lives on in Fuji and Impossible, as does the use of Land’s cameras. The Polaroid Project itself shows us that interest in this technology and its uniquely ‘authentic’ aesthetic is increasing, whilst here at CELLOPHANELAND* we even have a couple of cameras of our own and Polaroids pinned on the wall. The king is dead – long live the king!
The Polaroid Project: At the Intersection of Art and Technology ed. William Ewing and Barbara Hitchcock, published by Thames & Hudson. To purchase (currently at a 20% discount) visit www.thamesandhudson.com
A touring exhibition organised by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography opens at the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas June 3 to 3 September 2017 then travels to Europe. fep-photo.org/exhibition/polaroid/
1 July 2017 § Leave a comment
This post also appears on www.cellophaneland.com
Any history of photography would be incomplete without substantial mention of the famed photographic agency Magnum, now celebrating its 70th anniversary. Within its 1947 origins are both the reasons for its success and for its often rocky journey: the diverse founding group included both Robert Capa who represented the ultimate in involved photo-journalism and, at the opposite end of the spectrum Henri Cartier-Bresson whose imagery was detached and artistic. This stylistic inclusivity both made it important but at the same time ensured that members would rarely see eye to eye.
What they had in common however was a desire to break the traditional model of the photographic business – a system where the publishers had total control. Magnum Photos Inc sought to break this with a disruptive model worthy of Uber. The photographers would take control of their images, owning their rights, dictating editing and presentation and even creating content and photo-essays.
Despite the canny catch-all basis of the business – which included not only photographs but for example printing, cameras, moving images, design, studios, materials and equipment – image quality always remained high in the agenda. Magnum would always stand for intelligence in combining both reporter and artist in the photographer’s role.
The story to be told in the Magnum Manifesto therefore is formidably complex. It is one that includes the Magnum’s founding, its ever-changing membership, the business models, the personal relationships and the artistic and cultural events that shaped the whole. In an often uneasy amalgam, its constituent photographers were often in conflict and a steady intake of new members, carefully screened and slowly inducted, meant an organisation in continuous flux.
Over and above this are of course the photographs from a roll call of the best in the world in all fields – Capa, Cartier Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, Alec Both, Alex Webb, Eve Arnold and so on. Their archive is represented by a steady stream iconic and event-defining images. These not only represented what was happening in the world but often shaped public opinion and by doing so could be argued to have moulded future events.
A deep look into the organisation is therefore so much more than a book of photographs and in fact the anniversary is being marked not just by this hugely impressive book, but by a global programme of events and exhibitions.
The title Magnum Manifesto makes it clear that this is not just a photo book featuring their ‘greatest hits’ but a deeper look in to everything that it represents. The book infact takes the opportunity to display plenty of lesser known, but still impressive, works. After some introductory essays, the preface looks at the four founders at the time that they created the organisation – all working busily around the globe in a rapidly changing post war world – before dividing Magnum’s story in to three key periods.
Human Rights and Wrongs represents the period from its founding until 1968. A time of widespread unrest it was also the time of the UN Declaration of Human Rights – a proclamation with the same values of liberty, equality and dignity espoused by the agency. We see representative images of hunger, postwar Soviet Union, black power, strikes and student riots before a series of longer photo essays that look at universality – a theme that at least partly inspired Edward Steichen’s landmark ‘Family of Man’ exhibition at MoMA in 1955, where nearly a fifth of the images were supplied by Magnum.
An Inventory of Differences describes the subsequent period, from 1969 to ’89, where the focus became more on differences and otherness. We find the unemployed, deformed, immigrant, minority and marginalised of the world and memorable images like Steve McCurry’s Afghan Refugee. Portfolios include Inge Morath’s Masquerade, Philip Jones Griffiths Immigrants and Josef Koudelka’s Gypsies.
Finally Stories About Endings shows the postmodern era up to the present day. Cultural expansion led to greater ‘artistic’ output and a flowering of methods of distribution of the imagery – books, exhibitions, gallery displays and the internet. Photographers looked at what was disappearing. We see Martin Parr’s Still Lives and Colonial lives, Thomas Dworzak’s Taliban and Donovan Wylie’s The Maze.
That the Magnum Manifesto succeeds in its task is great credit to the editor Clément Chéroux who must be commended in producing something that has combined all these aspects in to a cohesive whole. We get a compelling story that draws us through the ups and downs of the organisation even whilst great historic events unfold. We also get enough stunning imagery from the great photographers to realise why Magnum is something unique and special.
An absolutely essential book on the most important photographers collective the world has ever seen.
Magnum Photos’ 70th anniversary will be celebrated with a global programme of events throughout 2017. For more information visit www.magnumphotos.com
To purchase Magnum Manifesto (at a 20% discount) visit www.thamesandhudson.com
The first accompanying exhibition is at the International Center for Photography NY until 3 September 2017 and will then tour internationally.
5 September 2016 § Leave a comment
Think of a William Eggleston photograph and it most likely will not feature any people. He is celebrated for his experimental use of colour and the way that he sees complexity and beauty in the mundane and perhaps most likely you will recall simple slices of rural American life: a tangle of wires on a red ceiling, a child’s bike, a coke machine, old gas stations or simply a patch of wall.
Each of image has a deceptive simplicity and his groundbreaking style soon led to the solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1976, considered a pivotal moment in the recognition of colour photography as a contemporary art form. Democratically photographing whatever is in front of him he claims not to seek depth or narrative. What you see is what you get. “I wanted to make a picture that could stand on its own, regardless of what it was a picture of.”
Perhaps this is largely true but in a stunning new exhibition that has targeted the portraits, that up to now have perhaps seemed a less important part of his work, and it turns out that quite often there is rather more to the story.
Gathering together a hundred works from throughout his carer this exhibition soon makes you realise that portraits often features friends, musicians, actors and his own family and relations. They provide a window in to his home life and also reveal for the first time the identities of many of the previously anonymous sitters.
In his earliest black and white images – we see a selection from between 1960 and 1965 – people were his primary subject. Seemly largely taken unawares they are people going about their daily life. It seems however that for example one was of his housekeeper, another his mother on her bed.
Once we realise the identities of many of these people and that that Eggleston is not the disinterested, impartial observer that we know from his street scenes we start to understand more about these his life, these people and their times.
An interest in the bars and nightclubs of Memphis brought about a stock of grainy documentary footage – shown here for the first time – and another surprising set of images. Entitled Nightclub Portraits these were taken with a bulky view camera, rather than his nimble Leica, and with the help of an assistant. Remarkably clear and colourful, formally posed shots that, other than the subjects, they look like they were taken yesterday.
There are plenty more gems here. A never before exhibited portrait of Dennis Hopper in his car is hung beside one of Eudora Welty (apparently executed in a matter of seconds).
Another perviously unseen image is that of Joe Strummer, beer in hand, watched by a fan in a Clockwork Orange T shirt. This is a juxtaposition that could look like a casual accident. Not here though. The punk maverick and Kubrick’s dystopian nightmare are deliberately and deftly placed side by side by Eggleston’s pin-sharp vision.
A red haired girl spread on the grass, is executed perfectly with focus only on the face and the camera in her hand. A supermarket worker is captured tidying trolleys, in golden light, shadow on wall and watched by a local shopper. A middle aged lady in a flowery dress swings on a garden seat adorned in equally gaudy fabric.
Eggleston is an artists so well known that perhaps we thought that we knew pretty much everything about him and his aesthetic. How wrong we were. This exhibition, with deep research and clever curation brings a significant understanding to one of the great photographers.
This post also appears on www.cellophaneland.com
2 September 2016 § Leave a comment
Each narrow cell in which we dwell
Is foul and dark latrine,
And the fetid breath of living Death
Chokes up each grated screen,
And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
In Humanity’s machine.
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde
For the very first time in its history, Reading Prison – formerly Gaol – has been opened to the public. The National Trust have teamed up with Artangel to allow visitors to tour the corridors and cells best known for incarcerating Oscar Wilde for two traumatic and life-changing years from 1895.
We visited on a warm summers day, with well-lit corridors and cell walls illuminated by bright shafts of sunlight. It was not the best time to experience anything of the misery that prisoners must have endured from the 1840’s right up until its surprisingly recent decommissioning in 2013, but it was not too difficult to imagine the hardships that were endured.
The core of the prison remains largely as it was built, in brick and cast iron, by George Gilbert Scott. As a renowned Victorian Gothic revival architect, he was chiefly associated with the design of churches and cathedrals, but was also architect of iconic buildings like the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station.
The influence of his church architecture can be seen in occasional gothic motifs and ceiling shapes that define the four brick-built wings. These are arranged in a (religiously influenced?) cross-shape so that the 19th century Governor could easily keep a beady eye on all four wings simultaneously from his central office area.
The prison chapel, most recently doubling as a sports hall, is suitably grand with high ceilings and leaded windows. It also features Oscar Wilde’s wooden cell door -carefully preserved it here stands monumentally atop a concrete plinth crafted to the exact dimensions of his cell. The space once had a sloping floor where the prisoners each had their own cubicle, banned from seeing or communicating with any other inmate. Total silence infact originally reigned throughout with prisoners locked 23 hours a day in single cells, banned from talking – or seeing – others and hooded when moved.
Those more dangerous or unruly were held in the handful of the ‘dark cells’ underground, isolated in the almost unimaginable privations of total darkness and silence. After taking showers in the adjacent area other prisoners were often given a two-minute taste of isolation as a, presumably fairly effective, warning of what would become them should they misbehave.
Wilde’s Cell A3.3 – actually now numbered A2.2 – can also be visited. Identical to every other it has enough space, just, for the single bed and desk that he was allowed. He managed to negotiate a supply of paper from a helpful warden – one sheet at a time – upon which he wrote the reflective De Profundis (From the Depths) – a letter to Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas, the object of the reckless relationship that led to his eventual imprisonment. The brutal regime of Reading broke his will and contributed heavily to his early death.
Readings from De Profundis by, amongst others Patti Smith, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw will also take place, whilst writers including Ai Weiwei have also contributed letters that are on display in the cells.
Alongside the prison tours, arranged by the National Trust, is a very impressive exhibition of contemporary art. Organised by Artangel, who commission ‘art that challenges perceptions, surprises, inspires and wouldn’t be possible within the confines of a gallery.’ They have invited a formidable array of talent to produce work that reacts to the prison environment and its history.
Amongst many highlights are Robert Gober’s meticulously crafted sculptures – a waterfall within a black suit and a stream within the excavated floor of the prison, clearly expressing unfulfilled fantasies of freedom and nature.
Nan Goldin brings her raw and intimate portraits into an appropriately claustrophobic space. She occupies four cells with pieces including The Boy – a cell filled with images of a single male muse, that climb over walls and lay scattered on an iron bedstead,
Marlene Dumas has produced eight new canvases that include Wilde and Bosie as well as chronicling other troubled relationships such as between Jean Genet and two of his lovers and Pier Paolo Pasolini and his mother.
In the centre of the corridors you can help yourself to a free (yes free!) unlimited edition print by Felix Gonzales-Torres alongside cells where his curtains of dangling blue plastic beads (Untitled Water) cleverly subvert the entry to a couple of cells and a blue mirror (Untitled Fear) reflects a troubled interior.
Other thoughtful and interesting contributions come from great names like Wolfgang Tillmans, Richard Hamilton, Roni Horn, Steve McQueen and Doris Salcedo.
It is not often that architecture, culture, history, literature and contemporary art come together in a single event but here www have an exception collaboration between two giants of the arts and culture – the National Trust and Artangel, in a unique environment. They have created a wholly satisfying and integrated whole that should be most definitely experienced while it lasts.
HM Prison Reading is open for tours Friday 9 September – Saturday 29 October 2016
Artists and Writers by Artangel at Reading Prison run from 4 September to 30 October 2016
For more information visit www.artangel.org.uk
This article also appears in www.cellophaneland.com